President Obama’s recent remarks about religious division in Northern Ireland sparked considerable and increasingly heated opposition from Christian leaders. Unfortunately, the fuse lit by Obama has offered not much light, by anyone on either side of the fight.

“If Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, and fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division and discourages cooperation,” Obama said to an audience in Belfast.


Liberals, represented by Obama, seem willing to chastise religion only in the Christian version. They say nary a critical word about the horrific intra-Islamic civil conflicts and tyranny that plague many parts of the world, or the Muslim culture of persecution, misogyny, intolerance, sectarian dogmatism and pious cruelty that often attend the religion of Muhammad.

Liberals are multicultural in Muslim matters, it seems, yet openly judgmental when it comes to Christianity.

But the Christian Right isn’t being exactly forthright or fair-minded, either. Prominent Catholic and Protestant figures quick to react, scolded Obama for promoting an alleged secular, “progressive” agenda that’s hostile to Christian authority. While that’s likely true, there are several important things missing in the Christian response to Obama:

  • First, Obama was not incorrect to suggest that differences among Christian sects can be a potent source of civil discord. It’s no attack on Christianity to point out the dangers of Christian sectarianism, historically, especially in parts of the world that have been torn apart by doctrines of Papal Supremacy and Divine Right Theory of Kingship.
  • Second, it seems unfair to equate thriving, peaceful Christian churches and schools in America with Christianity worldwide and throughout history. In America, all religions, including Christian versions, are circumscribed by the civilizing effect of law rooted in natural right. Take away that law and ignore the principle of individual natural rights, and one gets something very different. The evidence is fifteen centuries of Christian poverty, persecution, warfare and worse, preceding the American Founding. Stated differently: if historic, traditional Christianity is real Christianity, then what makes Christianity in America uniquely compatible with free society are the elements that are American or Americanized, not Christian.
  • Third, it’s wrong to assume that all cheerleading for Christianity is politically conservative, or that liberalism keeps both feet planted on the ground of secular hostility to religion. There are Christian liberals, lots of them, who voted for Obama and support the agenda he represents.

That’s not new, either. Let us never forget that the most potent engine for promoting socialism in America a century ago was the “Social Gospel Movement,” in which Christian preachers and authors taught congregants that socialism is the economic and political corollary of Christianity.

For all that the New Testament is, it is not a treatise of politics. There is no clear political teaching in it. One can tease out of the New Testament bits and pieces, hints and implications, of republican-style self-government, constitutionalism, and free market economics. But so too the New Testament can be read as compatible with socialism, communism, and a variety of ideologies far from freedom on the spectrum of political thought. In their quiver of arguments, for example, the most potent tool Christian defenders of slavery had in antebellum America was the Bible.

The subject of religion and politics is complicated, for sure. But if we don’t understand the problems, it’s hard to appreciate much less understand the solutions discovered by the Americans. That’s how we get superficial debates like the ones fueled by Obama’s recent remarks, even though they touch deeply important and serious matters.


Aristotle famously argued that the aim of legislators and legislation is virtue in the citizenry, encouraged by laws promoting good habits, the prelude to virtue. But the framework of Aristotle’s comment was the ancient polis, not the modern state. Analysis of these two different forms of human politics reveals the problem of law in the modern world, the theological-political problem intrinsic to Christianity.

Every ancient polis or city — exemplified by ancient Israel, ancient Athens, or perhaps most vividly, ancient Sparta — understood itself to be a holy city, a city of God, because everyone believed their fundamental laws came from their particular God or Gods. The modern Christian notion that the City of God is somehow different from the City of Man would have been unintelligible to citizens of ancient cities. If one told a Jew in ancient Israel, for example, that he might end up in the City of God but only after he dies and only if he believes certain doctrines, he would likely blink in confusion. In his mind, he already lived in the City of God governed by God’s Laws.

If the laws are purported to be divine laws, as they were in every ancient city, then literally nothing is off limits for the law, in principle, and the idea of privacy makes no political sense. Divine law can rightfully regulate any and all parts of human life because, well, it’s divine law, at least in the minds of those who lived under it.

Aristotle, seeing the all-encompassing scope of law in his ancient world (which didn’t seem ancient to those living at the time, including Aristotle), suggested that the laws should aim at cultivating virtue. And virtue, Aristotle demonstrated at length, can be discovered and known through reason. Thus his ultimate purpose, I think, was to infuse reason into the laws.

But Christianity changed all of that. It literally ushered in an entirely new world, politically. Among the features of Christianity, it severed the connection between law and God. The God of the New Testament is not a law-giving God. No American, for example, thinks the U.S. Constitution came directly from God or one of His prophets. But this also means the Christian world had to look for a new foundation for law, something other than God to make law legitimate. The solution was the consent of the governed, an idea articulated best by John Locke and first implemented in full by the American Founders.


When Christians began to interpret Aristotle’s maxim — that the law should promote good habits and ultimately virtue — they re-defined virtue to mean Christian virtue. But Christian virtue came to mean whatever the priests or popes or various competing churches said it meant. This led to widespread persecution in the name of promoting Christian virtue by law.

The man who saw this problem most clearly was Machiavelli. The great Machiavellian turn was his not-so-subtle suggestion that the aim of law, government, and politics should be lowered: Law should aim at safety, not virtue. This, he believed, was the key to ending religious persecution in the Christian West.

In this limited respect, the American Founders were students of Machiavelli. The Constitution they designed aims at safety — securing the individual natural rights of American citizens — not virtue. The main objects for the national government, under the Constitution, are national defense and national security, combined with equal protection for individual freedom and property rights under the laws.

At the same time, however, elements of the ancient view of law are present in the police powers reserved to state and local governments, the power to regulate the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the people. Unlike the powers of the national government, which are clearly enumerated and strictly limited by the Constitution, the powers of state and local governments are virtually unlimited, save a handful of restrictions in Article I, Section 10, and the Republican Guarantee Clause of Article IV.


So it seems that America truly is a mixture, part modern, part ancient:

  • Aristotle’s concern for promoting good habits and virtue exists in American law, but only at the state and local levels (where there is competition among states to help moderate this potentially massive and easily abused legal power).
  • Machiavelli’s concern for lowering the goal of law and politics is evident at the national level and the limited powers granted to the national government by the Constitution.

Combined, we see statecraft as safety in America, at the national level, and statecraft as soul-craft, in a limited way, at the state and local levels.


There is and has been a long-standing debate about whether America was founded as a “Christian nation.” While leaving the full answer to that question for another occasion, let us make one thing clear: Whatever the European colonists who came to North America and eventually sparked the American Revolution wanted to create, it is beyond dispute the kinds of regimes they wanted to flee at risk of life and limb: officially Christian nations with established, official Christian churches.

Yes, Christian men and women of Europe flocked to the untamed wilderness of North America just to escape the injustice and cruelty of those medieval Christian tyrannies.

Perhaps it is more interesting to ask how America influenced Christianity than it is to ask how Christianity influenced America. Christianity infused with political power in the Old World often meant persecution, poverty, and death. But in America the scene is quite different.

With laws enshrining the beautiful and true principles of human equality and individual natural rights, in America it’s not uncommon to see people living peacefully as neighbors, fellow citizens, and potential friends, who in the Old World busied themselves slaughtering and torturing one another — Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, theists and deists and skeptics of all kinds. These people can be friends in America because, and only because, the rights of some do not depend on the religious beliefs of others. Hats off to John Locke and his students, the American Founders, for figuring this out.

So the next time an American president wants to warn the world against intra-Christian fighting, let’s remind him of the American solution to that problem. And the next time Christians assume their own religion has always been a source of political good, let’s remind them of the very real problems of the Christian world that the Americans solved. And maybe somewhere in all of that, some will remember the principles of natural right that provide for religious liberty, justice under law, and the peace and prosperity we so enjoy and too often take for granted.