Our religious and political rights are uniquely bound up together. Most young Americans, and far too many older native born American citizens, have little or no idea how important this truth really is.
The central idea behind this unique relationship in American political understanding is limited government. This is really what classical liberalism understood and fervently practiced. Modern liberalism has little or nothing to do with this understanding, preferring to stress ideologies that are neither truly liberal nor limited.
The founding fathers fervently believed that we were all created equal, with inherent rights to life and liberty given to us by God. This belief was rooted in both Judeo-Christian beliefs and some elements of Enlightenment philosophy. The securing of these rights was the very basis for a limited government. And a limited government was based upon the understanding that true power arose from the governed who were willing to consent to a just government.
There were some very big differences of opinion among our founding fathers, such as two very different views of America’s future as represented by Jefferson and Hamilton. In some ways these two distinct views clashed in the Civil War, as North and South came to represent these two differing positions. But regardless of these early differences what clearly united the founders was a deep respect for individual rights and for limited government.
This is one reason why public education developed in the United States. We wanted an educated populace so that we could protect our rights and become an informed people who would protect basic liberties through a limited government. This is also why religious liberty has been such an important issue in this country. If we begin to see these basic values erode, as they are now being eroded through both federal courts and the ever expanded role of a more powerful federal government that has more freedom to control our daily lives, then we could potentially lose our most treasured freedoms.
It is generally those people who champion issues like judicial reform, the limitation of regressive taxation and a faithful straightforward reading of the Constitution, that are most likely to understand what limited government really means and why it still matters. Oddly, this was once what liberalism was all about. Times have truly changed, both in terms of what people believe today, but also in terms of how everyday words like liberal and conservative have changed their basic meanings.
When I am asked about my own views I answer: “I am committed to preserving a liberal democracy that will protect our individual rights, conserve what is truly good in our past, and remain open to dynamic changes that will improve our common lot and the public good. I believe all of these should operate under a limited government that fosters both fairness and community-based benevolence.” This is a truly liberal democracy, in very simple language. I believe this type of democracy is actually threatened in our time. We may lose it if we do not better understand it and learn how to promote it and preserve it. Nothing will destroy us faster than an ignorant populace that universally assumes the primary role of government is to promote things like tolerance, sexual freedom and opposition to the public role of religion. This is why, in the present sense of the terms that we use today, I am a conservative.
This is also why I think many leaders of the religious right do not understand the better instincts of this truer and more widely understood conservatism, a conservatism rooted in basic human rights and limited government. Any type of theocratic emphasis should never become the basis of a liberal democracy, thus such an emphasis is never consistent with the best kind of modern conservatism. The religious right has done us much good over the last twenty-five years but it has failed to grasp, at times, these important foundational points about good government. This is especially true when it stresses a litmus test of narrow religious interests as primary to America’s future. If the religious right wants to truly change America it should help us establish the first things before it advances its bigger agenda. In fact, many of the litmus test concerns of the religious right would be much better addressed by rebuilding a truly liberal democracy first and then by seeking to change people’s views on moral issues through the hard work of community service and faithful Christian teaching. The problem is the religious right has come to believe it can change culture by direct political force. This is a denial, in the end, of truly liberal democracy.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."