Do the Church Fathers, the Founding Fathers, and Catholic Saints
Really Go Together?

Thoughts on the roots of religious liberty as the Catholic Church's
"Fortnight for Freedom" comes to a close.

Timothy Samuel Shah
Christianity Today
July 5, 2012

America's Roman Catholic bishops just completed the "Fortnight for
Freedom," a two-week period intended to "support a great national
campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty." As
evangelical and Catholic leaders have spent the past year opposing the
Obama administration's so-called contraceptive mandate, the timing,
motives, and agenda driving the "Fortnight for Freedom" have prompted
widespread commentary. Rather than scrutinizing the Fortnight's
agenda, Protestants could examine deeper questions than what took
place on the surface.

It's important to consider the Fortnight's placement on the calendar—
the significance of the Fortnight's dates, June 21 to July 4—to
understand the nature of religious freedom and the relationship
between what to some mixes like oil and water: the Christian tradition
and American liberty.

It's worth considering whether the church fathers and the founding
fathers enjoy a deeper conceptual affinity—precisely around the
meaning and foundations of religious freedom—than many people
(including perhaps the bishops) have noticed.

A feast of martyrs vs. the Fourth of July

The Fortnight for Freedom began on June 21, marking the vigil of the
feasts of Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More. Fisher and More
were both executed because they refused to endorse Henry VIII's
claimed supremacy over the English church. The vast majority of
English nobles and bishops endorsed the supremacy, while Fisher and
More stood virtually alone.

Though urged to use mental reservation to endorse the succession while
denying its legitimacy in their hearts, the men were convinced that
they could not do so without violating their consciences and
endangering their salvation. As More declared, I could not meet with
the Works of any one Doctor, approved by the Church, that avouch a
Layman was, or ever could be the Head of the Church.

Fisher was executed on June 22, 1535, and More was executed on July 6,
1535. In 1970, the Roman Catholic Church declared that they should
share the same feast day, so every June 22 More and Fisher are honored
as martyrs for the church. They are honored for standing up for a
simple idea, though one that has proven consistently controversial and
dangerous throughout history: the church cannot be true to itself if
it does not enjoy independence from the powers that be.

The other bookend of the Fortnight for Freedom is the Fourth of July,
for the obvious reason that this marks Independence Day—the birthday
of American liberty. On that date in 1776, of course, the American
Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of
Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. If June 22 stands for the
right of the church to be independent, July 4 stands for the right of
every people to be independent.

It stands for the right of political self-government, and of course
the Declaration of Independence roots the right of political self-
government in the permanent and universal rights of all human beings.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted
among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the

June 22 and July 4, then, would seem to have little to do with each
other. They represent paradoxes: liturgical vs. the civic, ecclesial
independence vs. political self-determination, martyrdom vs. life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas More vs. Thomas Jefferson

The symbolic gulf between the two dates widens even further when one
considers the great men with which they are most closely associated.
June 22 is mostly remembered as the feast day of Thomas More, who
stands for a heroic commitment to the independence of the church. But
his heroic commitment to the church's independence can't help but look
to modern eyes like an unquestioning if not fanatical devotion to the
church's authority. While one expression of More's commitment was a
willingness to lay down his life as a martyr, another expression of
his commitment was a willingness to make martyrs of others. As Lord
Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, More presided over the
execution of six Protestants for heresy. Unlike his modern admirers,
More was proud of this feature of his biography, and he notes in his
own epitaph that he was "grievous" to "thieves, murderers, and
heretics" alike.

There could hardly be a more perfect contrast with Thomas More than
Thomas Jefferson, the secular saint so closely associated with the
Fourth of July. After all, the Fourth of July became Jefferson's day
not only because he was the author of the Declaration of Independence.
It was providentially sealed as Jefferson's civic feast day because of
the coincidence of his death (along with John Adams's) on July 4, 1826—
50 years to the day after the original signing of the Declaration of
Independence in 1776.

Yet Jefferson was a fierce opponent of the Christian traditionalism
for which Thomas More lived and died, famously going so far as to
produce a kind of "revised rationalist version" of the New Testament,
with all the supernatural bits (including Christ's resurrection) cut
out. And he was a proud proponent of a degree of religious freedom
that More would probably have found inconceivable. In contrast to
More's epitaph, Jefferson's authorship of Virginia's Act for
Establishing Religious Freedom is one of only three achievements he
had inscribed on his gravestone at Monticello.

What did June 22 have to do with the Fourth of July?

So what does Thomas Jefferson have to do with Thomas More? What does
the modern American founding have to do with the pre-modern Christian
tradition? What do the self-evident truths on which Jefferson staked
his life have to do with the Catholic truths for which More gave his

If there is a gulf between June 22 and July 4, perhaps it is the
consequence of the radical divide described most memorably by
Tertullian, a founding father of Western Christianity: What has
Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the
Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the Porch of
Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in
simplicity of heart. … After Jesus Christ we have no need of
speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.

What should we make, then, of a "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign so
intent on conjoining Jerusalem and Athens, orthodoxy and liberty, the
feast day of the martyr and the Fourth of July?

What hath the heretic to do with the church father?

At least one "heretic" begged to differ with Tertullian's judgment
that a heretic and the church have nothing in common. Thomas Jefferson
thought he had more in common with Tertullian than Tertullian might
have thought conceivable.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson offers a series of
claims about religion and religious freedom that at first glance would
seem to underscore the gulf between pre-modern Christian orthodoxy and
modern liberalism: [O]ur rulers can have authority over such natural
rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we
never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to
our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only
as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor
to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket
nor breaks my leg.

With this passage, Jefferson not only breaks with the constitutive
premises of Christendom. He openly advocates a spirit we associate
with secular liberal modernity, in which religious orthodoxy takes a
back seat to untrammeled religious liberty. In religious matters,
everything is permitted, at least as far as civil authority is
concerned. No matter what your heresy may be, whether you believe in
"twenty gods, or no god," the "powers of government" must leave you
unmolested. So long, of course, as your religion "does me no injury"—
with "injury" narrowed to mean only the most tangible harms: "picks my
pocket" or "breaks my leg."

It seems clear, in other words, that the heretical spirit of Jefferson
could not be more distant from the dogmatic orthodoxy of Tertullian or
Thomas More.

Jefferson's debt to Tertullian's pre-modern liberalism

And yet, at the very point where the conceptual worlds of Jefferson
and Tertullian might seem a million miles apart and set on opposite
trajectories, they suddenly intersect and come into astonishing

In his copy of his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson placed a
single annotation next to the famous passage quoted above, just after
the sentence, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts
only as are injurious to others."

Astoundingly, the annotation is a Latin quotation from Tertullian. In
a short letter to the Roman proconsul Scapula, probably written in 212
C.E., the North African church father had written in denunciation of a
new wave of Christian persecution.

As one widely used translation of the text quoted by Jefferson puts
However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that
every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's
religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part
of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should
lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind.

Here the founding father quotes the church father. And he does so
because he recognized that more than 1,500 years earlier, the church
father had already articulated a radical case for religious liberty—a
case that was hardly less radical, hardly less liberal, and hardly
less modern than the case Jefferson articulated.

Is religious freedom a concession or indulgence that governments and
peoples grant when they are feeling generous? No, because Tertullian
insisted that it is a "fundamental human right."

Is religious freedom a matter of the majority tolerating the minority,
or a privilege restricted to Christians and true believers? No,
Tertullian argued it is "a privilege of nature" that every human being
"should worship according to his own convictions."

Does my neighbor's faith so affect me that I have the right and
responsibility to coercively interfere with his religious belief and
practice? No, Tertullian anticipated the liberal harm principle of
John Locke, Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill in arguing that "one man's
religion neither harms nor helps another man" and should be left

But doesn't zeal for orthodoxy and love for lost souls require the
church to compel agreement with the true faith? No, as Tertullian
understood, "It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to
which free-will and not force should lead us."

Freedom is a higher obedience

In the end, a profound underlying kinship binds June 22 with July 4.
Of course, between the Christian tradition of Tertullian and More and
the Enlightenment rationalism of Jefferson, there will always be a
vast gulf concerning the nature, destiny, and highest good of human
beings, let alone the nature of God.

Yet they share something profound nonetheless: a higher loyalty sets
permanent limits to the powers of government. The truest test of the
justice and freedom of any society is how much its government and
people respect the fact that all of its members owe their highest
obedience to the truth about God as their consciences deliver it, not
to the powers that be, whether emperor, king, or democratic majority.

As Tertullian described the defiance of his fellow Christians in the
face of Roman persecution: [W]hen challenged to sacrifice, we stand
immovable in loyalty to our conscience. … [S]ome people think it
madness, that, though we could for the moment sacrifice and go away
unhurt, with a mental reservation, we prefer "obstinacy" to safety.
Our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Churchwho conceived the
"Fortnight for Freedom" were wise to conjoin June 22 and July 4. Those
dates, and all the dates in between, are excellent occasions for
remembering that our churches and our nation will be truly free only
if we "stand immovable in loyalty to our conscience."

So let us not be afraid to prefer conscientious "obstinacy" to the
"safety" of the crowd. The rights and liberties we now defend under
the banner of religious freedom are fundamental truths the Christian
tradition has cherished from its earliest centuries. And as we persist
in defending them against what may well be increasingly unfriendly
currents of opinion, let us remember that we follow in the footsteps
of the venerable if improbable fraternity of Tertullian, Thomas More,
and Thomas Jefferson.

Timothy Samuel Shah is associate director and scholar in residence of
the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley
Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.