In the last issue of First Things, a self-described coalition of “Catholics and Evangelicals together” defends religious freedom. The coalition includes a number of notable Americans, like Charles Colson and George Weigel, with endorsements from the archbishops of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, along with many others. According to the statement, the situation is unexpectedly urgent. After the fall of the Soviet Union, “throughout the world, a new era of religious freedom seemed at hand.” But, now it is blatantly clear that the scourge of intolerance—especially secularist intolerance—persists.

The current “peril” for religious freedom is global, given forces like communism and Islam that often trample it. On unclear evidence, the statement goes so far as to say that “the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity” is occurring right now. It calls for a response abroad, in how “the foreign policy of the United States and Canada” are conducted. But religious freedom is also threatened within.

All this is very interesting. Rooted in the vision of the founder of First Things, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, and imbued with the spirit of his resounding complaint that the public square is naked in this country, the statement portends a continuing period of strife over the very meaning of religious freedom and the everyday management of the secular public space.

It is important that the group situates itself historically. Religious freedom is deeply rooted in the West, the statement explains. The group offers a “genealogy” (its term) of the principle, starting from Jesus and running through Lactantius, Roger Williams, and Martin Luther. And then, rather remarkably, it leaps to the last half of the twentieth century, most especially Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (1965).

I want to take up some of that history in this short post—but first let’s consider the contemporary politics of the statement.

It may have appeared too late to welcome the Supreme Court’s “ministerial exception” case that, in January, limited the scope of antidiscrimination law in the name of religious freedom. With perfect timing, the statement coincided with the politics of the accommodation President Barack Obama famously offered (and continues to seek in new versions), constricting reproductive choice in view of objections based on the same principle. Some might see those developments as illustrating the considerable force of religious sentiment, and the power of the norm of religious freedom, in American public affairs. Outside the United States, the Lautsi v. Italy case decided last summer by the European Court of Human Rights suggests a similar conclusion. A prominent American law professor invoked Neuhaus’s slogan in his appellate defense of the continuing presence of crucifixes in Italian schoolrooms, and the Court’s decision to side with him shows that religious freedom and public Christianity maintain a healthy communion.

This coalition of American Christians, however, is still worried, as it explains in a crucial paragraph:

Proponents of human rights, including governments,” it writes, “have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare ‘freedom of worship.’ This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatizes the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors. It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life.

In view of such fears, I write to ask how serious a “genealogy” of this coalition’s preferred understanding of religious freedom is required to understand its own current advocacy. It may seem strange, especially on this blog, to bracket a currently influential critique of secularism, in order to investigate instead the lineage of the worry that privatization of “orthodoxy” is normatively misguided or practically discriminatory. In view of the coalition’s statement, however, this agenda seems pressing. Where did the strategy of insisting on the “inherently public” character of religion come from, especially one grouping some Catholics in alliance with American evangelicals?

It’s important to recall that the defense of Christianity as an “inherently public” religion is nothing new; but until very recently Catholicism—and especially conservative Catholicism—considered the principle of religious freedom to be the disease rather than the cure. The failure of various mid-twentieth century political attitudes led to an Americanization of Catholicism in which religious freedom made unprecedented inroads. It did so, however, as the new way that “inherently public” religion was pursued—one in which American Protestantism suddenly became model rather than stigma.

Most people know—though the statement doesn’t mention—that Catholic authorities generally rejected religious freedom prior to Vatican II. In its scandalous indifference to truth, religious freedom, Pope Leo XIII explained in Immortale Dei (1885), is little more than slavery to falsehood. According to this encyclical on “the Christian constitution of states,” Catholicism must stand against the:

theory that all questions that concern religion are to be referred to private judgment; that every one is to be free to follow whatever religion he prefers, or none at all if he disapprove of all. From this the following consequences logically flow: that the judgment of each one’s conscience is independent of all law; that the most unrestrained opinions may be openly expressed as to the practice or omission of divine worship; and that every one has unbounded license to think whatever he chooses and to publish abroad whatever he thinks. Now, when the State rests on foundations like those just named … it readily appears into what and how unrightful a position the Church is driven.

In the crisis in the middle of the twentieth century, when liberal democracy was destroyed, it was therefore not out of nowhere that Catholics frequently voted with their feet in favor of explicitly Catholic states in crisis circumstances (in Austria, Portugal, and Spain before World War II, and then Croatia, Vichy France, and Slovakia during it) and fascist states when this first best option was not available (in Germany and Italy before World War II and most of Europe during it). Indeed, forsaking state capture still seemed radical in the 1940s, when  powerful Vatican forces remained stalwart in its defense of the older view that an endorsement of religious freedom made sense only as a “hypothesis” in those situations in which Catholics were in the minority—as in the United States—rather than a general principle or “thesis.” (Leo XIII proceeded this way, for instance, in first taking note of American Catholicism in his encyclical Longinqua Oceani [1895].)

The end of World War II famously gave birth to a widespread new compatibility of Catholicism with liberalism, including liberal rights. Yet through the 1950s, and in fact through Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole still opposed religious freedom, against a strong set of dissidents like Jacques Maritain and others. After the war, figures like Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (last head of the millennial inquisition) continued to inveigh against religious freedom, offering Spain, where clericofascism in a majority Catholic country had survived, as the ideal model. Indeed, Ottaviani and his allies, in a once dramatic set of events, nearly derailed Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom, which was the most high-profile and visible part of its work precisely because it was by no means uncontested.

In short, the idea of religious freedom as the key buttress of inherently public religion was painfully acquired—thus allowing today’s coalition. Among Catholics, it had to be developed against those who insisted that “inherently public” religion needed to be immunized against the idea of religious freedom, with its Protestant, liberal, and privatizing implications. Long censured as a principle that brought ruin on Christianity, religious freedom now seemed a tool to buttress it.

It is not obvious why the switch happened. Those interested should be sure to read a new book by Emile Perreau-Saussine, a scholar who died tragically young a couple of years ago, for one important account. In my somewhat different opinion, it was a process in which the geopolitics of the Cold War mattered most, as certain principles like freedom of conscience once denounced by a reactionary church got a second look. The stimulus for this to occur was provided by a frightening secularist enemy against which the United States now stood as principal opponent, after an interwar period in which different choices—and serious mistakes—were too often made. Once tasked in Catholic political thought as a catalyst of secularism, religious freedom found itself recuperated as a crucial tool to stave secularism off. No wonder, then, that in privatizing faith, liberalism in the United States still seems analogous, for this coalition, most of all to communism. (As the statement explains, “the totalitarian temptation … seems to exist in all forms of political modernity.”)

The adoption of religious freedom in the face of the totalitarian danger also allowed an unprecedented move in the direction of Protestantism, once denounced as the source of modern ills. It also permitted American life to become a model—though many Catholics had commonly associated it with modern, individualist, and materialist error. Catholics like Maritain, for example, promoted America on the grounds that it showed how religious freedom promoted rather than undermined Christianity. In the nineteenth century, Catholic thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s attitude towards Protestant America was that it had figured out, by disestablishing the church, how to make Christianity more publicly powerful than ever. His message to Catholic reactionaries at home who denounced America as godless was that they needed to know how strong Christianity can become precisely among those who have given up the campaign to capture the state. “I shall wait until they come back from a visit to America,” Tocqueville wrote of his reactionary opponents. Maritain, who had once attacked America too, spent World War II there, forging alliances with theologians like John Courtney Murray who followed him in marginalizing the thesis/hypothesis model. Murray, under Maritain’s influence, became the most pivotal figure in Vatican II’s work on religious freedom.

That conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants rally around religious freedom together is nothing like a smooth continuity from Tocqueville’s America. Yet this is not simply because Tocqueville lost the argument in his time, with the unedifying politics of the twentieth century following, and the Cold War finally prompting the Catholic pivot. It is also because, after World War II, mainline Protestants in the United States turned religious freedom into a more genuinely liberal and privatizing principle than ever in this country’s history. If the Catholic transformation with respect to religious freedom was fateful, this mainline Protestant move was equally so. For in making it, mainline Protestants may have sealed their doom—and provided a short-term boost to privatizing liberalism that did not secure it in American life for long. After all, the evangelical ascendancy away from mainline coastal fortresses, which are today so depopulated, opened the door to the other side of the equation for today’s conservative coalition—not to mention to the rise of American conservatism generally.

The strange fact today, in summary, is that the principal defenders of American religious freedom defined as recognition of the “inherently public” role of faith could not have been in coalition at any other time. Even in postwar America, the coalition was not inevitable, and ending the story at Vatican II also leaves aside the very recent years when this coalition came together in what some have seen as a disturbing pact—one that certainly didn’t follow from a deeply rooted past.

Attractively, the group pauses at the start of its text, mindful of the injunction about casting the first stone. It alludes vaguely to some prior period when “Christians have also employed the state as an instrument of religious coercion.” But this passing allusion doesn’t interfere with the spotty history the statement goes on to give. After its acknowledgment that mistakes have been made by politicized Christians, the statement concludes that “memory of Christian sinfulness … gives us all the more reason to defend the religious freedom of all men and women today.” But everything then turns on what the “inherently public” forces deploying the principle of religious freedom really aim to achieve.

History won’t settle America’s debates about what religious freedom means. But its uncomfortable bits matter fully as much as its inspirational bits in showing that the principle is far from straightforward: for it is as much a novel tactic as it is an eternal truth.