|In early May, I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at Hillsdale College in Michigan. National Review has described Hillsdale as a “citadel of American conservatism,” though the college wasn’t founded by conservatives in the modern American sense, but by Christians.
So I used the opportunity afforded me to speak about the link between faith and freedom.
I noted the “unprecedented threat” to religious freedom we currently face. The threat isn’t only to religious believers and their institutions—it threatens all of our liberties. You cannot redefine religious freedom and compromise this liberty without calling the entire idea of self-government into question.
To understand why, it helps to remember that when the Founders prohibited the establishment of religion by the national government, they were not being anti-religion.
On the contrary, they wished to protect religion from all state intervention. Government had no business picking winners in the sphere of religion. It must stand back and let the people decide—let the free market of ideas do its work.
But there was more to religious freedom than the Establishment Clause. The Founders also enshrined a right to the free exercise of religion. The free exercise of religion goes beyond what happens on Sundays. It means allowing your beliefs to shape the way you live your life every day of the week.
The Founders knew that a robust exercise of religion was necessary for America to survive, that people exercising their religious convictions was vital to the success of this fragile experiment in liberty called America.
In his book, “A Free People’s Suicide,” my dear friend Os Guinness has written about what the Founders called the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” Simply put, Freedom requires Virtue. Virtue requires Faith. And Faith requires Freedom. And Freedom requires virtue and round and round it goes.
But why does freedom require virtue? Well, because American freedom means self-government. And how are the people to govern themselves if they have no virtue? If we have no virtue, won’t we just vote to line our own pockets and elect people who will give us what we want? Isn’t it obvious that the more virtuous a people is, the fewer policemen we need? The fewer prisons we’ll need to build?
John Adams famously said our government was not armed “with power sufficient to contend with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution,” he said, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Okay, so Freedom requires Virtue. But does Virtue require Religion? Well, not always. There are many people who are religious and corrupt, and many people who have no religion and are virtuous. But generally speaking, those who acknowledge a higher power and the laws of that higher power tend to be more virtuous than those who do not, or those who believe they can make whatever laws they like and who are beholden to no one.
The third leg of the triangle, Religion Requires Freedom, is the simplest to understand. We need only consider the Middle East or—God help them—North Korea.
Attempts to curtail the religious freedom that makes our freedoms possible is what Os rightly called “suicide.” And just as any decent person would try to dissuade someone from killing himself, Christians must oppose the current attempts to kill the source of their freedom.
Eric Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.