Published March 7, 2022
“If all men are bound to honor God,” mused one of the greatest of Protestant political theorists, “the entire nation, in her national capacity, is doubtless obliged to serve and honour him.”
Thus expressed, the sentiment appears almost incontestable; and until a couple of centuries ago, it was. Today, it is liable to seem laughable. In its place another principle has taken pride of place: “liberty of conscience is a natural and inviolable right.” Both quotations, however, come from the same source: Emer de Vattel and his magisterial The Law of Nations (1757). By meditating on this paradox, with Vattel as our guide, perhaps we can recover anew a synthesis that used to be central to Protestant political thought: the shared commitment to public religion and private conscience.
Although little known today, Vattel was a giant of eighteenth-century thought. Often classed among Enlightenment thinkers, Vattel was in fact still deeply embedded in the long tradition of magisterial Protestantism, indulging in a delightful screed against papal supremacy in the midst of his great treatise. Born in Neuchatel, Switzerland, a stone’s throw from Geneva, Vattel was nurtured in the Swiss Reformed faith before training in law and working as a scholar and a diplomat on behalf of the elector of Saxony and the King of Prussia (technically the sovereign of Neuchatel). The Law of Nations would exert a remarkable influence on the thought-world of western Europe and the Atlantic world over the next few decades. George Washington studied it closely, and one of the greatest early debates of early American foreign policy—between Jefferson and Hamilton, of course—was waged by way of rival quotations from Vattel’s masterpiece.
Vattel’s Defense of Public Religion
The basic thesis of his book was straightforward. The natural law, of which classical and Christian thinkers had written for two millenia, applied in its moral demands not merely to individuals, but to nations as corporate entities. Each nation, like each individual, must chart its course in relation to three overarching sets of duties: duties to self, duties to God, and duties to others. Indeed, God had so arranged the moral universe that a nation, like an individual, flourished best (and thus fulfilled its duties to self) when it honored God and honored its obligations to others. Unlike an individual, however, a nation had no higher authority on earth to tell it how to balance its various obligations; it must in the final analysis make its own decisions and bear the consequences before God.
Within this framework, Vattel constructed his argument for public religion on firm and ancient foundations. The first was the Aristotelian idea that the telos or goal for all human beings is happiness, conceived in the fullest and richest possible terms; everything we do strives toward this end. The second was the idea that humans live in and through communities or collectives larger than themselves—above all, to Vattel’s mind, the nation. Therefore, it followed that the task of the good ruler was to promote national happiness. And just as individual happiness depended upon the cultivation of virtue, so national happiness depended upon national virtue: “in order to conduct it [the nation] to happiness, it is still more necessary to inspire the people with the love of virtue, and the abhorrence of vice” (§115). Finally, since “Nothing is so proper as piety to strengthen virtue, and give it its due extent,” it followed that to be happy, “a nation ought then to be pious” (§125).
Thus far, the argument seems impeccable. And yet it has reached an impasse: what are we to do about freedom of conscience?
As a Protestant, Vattel can hardly be oblivious to this concern. If true piety depends on faith, and faith is an act of understanding and will, you cannot simply compel people into piety; that would defeat the very purpose. And yet is not compulsion central to the practice of politics and the exercise of sovereignty?
At the same time, the ruler must worry not merely about the demands of public piety and private conscience, but also, above all, about civil peace. “To live well, it is necessary first to live,” Richard Hooker remarks in this context, so any public policy regarding religion has to consider the chances of provoking violence and disorder—whether from legislating too little or too much.
Vattel, equally attentive to all three concerns, seeks to balance them delicately over the course of his lengthy chapter “Of Piety and Religion.” A close look at this remarkable text affords us a window into the forgotten world of Protestant political prudence.
Distinguishing Internal and External Religion
Vattel begins by making a fundamental distinction, one which goes all the way back to Martin Luther and his “two kingdoms.” Religion has both an internal and an external dimension. “So far as it is seated in the heart, it is an affair of conscience, in which every one ought to be directed by his own understanding: but so far as it is external, and publicly established, it is an affair of state” (§127). We might balk at the last phrase, but if the nation has duties toward God—and if religion can generate conflict—how can religion not be an affair of state?
Internally, the conscience is free for two reasons: first as a simple matter of fact (no one can compel me to believe something, however much they try), and second because the honor God desires is that which proceeds from true love and conviction. And since the conscience feels bound to honor God through worship, “there can then be no worship proper for any man, which he does not believe suitable to that end” (§128). If you force me to sacrifice animals to honor God, and I am convinced he desires no such thing, you are compelling me to sin against my conscience.
But worship is an external action, and hasn’t Vattel just said that external religion is an affair of state? Ah, yes, but another distinction is in order. Vattel notes that there is a great difference between being forced to do something and being forcibly prevented from doing something: “In religious affairs a citizen has only a right to be free from compulsion, but can by no means claim that of openly doing what he pleases, without regard to the consequences it may produce on society” (§129).
Although this might puzzle us moderns, a moment’s reflection can make sense of this distinction. On the one hand, if God commands that something not be done, any doing of it is sin. For this reason, the ruler should “oblige no body to do any thing contrary to his conscience; let no subject be forced to bear a part in a worship which he disapproves, or to profess a religion which he believes to be false” (§138). On the other hand, if God commands that something should be done, the performance will always be limited in some measure by the practical constraints of circumstance. I am commanded to attend public worship, but not if there’s a blizzard and I deem it too unsafe to drive. Similarly, Vattel concludes, if a gathering for public worship might provoke a riot (as a Catholic Mass would have done in many early modern Protestant communities, or vice versa), it may not be the time and place to gather, and the magistrate can say so:
let him, according to the light of his own knowledge, serve God in private, and in his own house,—persuaded that providence does not call upon him for public worship, since it has placed him in such circumstances, that he cannot perform it without creating disturbances in the state….[T]he precept that enjoins public worship is conditional, and dependent on the effects which that worship may produce. Interior worship is necessary in its own nature; and we ought to confine ourselves to it, in all cases in which it is most convenient. Public worship is appointed for the edification of men in glorifying God: but it counteracts that end, and ceases to be laudable, on those occasions when it only produces disturbances (§138).
In principle, then, while allowing freedom of conscience and avoiding any attempt to coerce certain religious behaviors, the wise and godly ruler may prevent certain forms of religious exercise if they would conflict with his more fundamental duties of maintaining public peace and safety. (Indeed, even today no one would dispute this principle if an Aztec sect demanded the religious liberty to practice child sacrifice.) And yet, since worship is such a fundamental duty of religious conscience, such liberty should not be taken away lightly.
Putting all of this together, Vattel says that when it comes to internal religion, the ruler should seek to promote it—but only by indirect encouragement and example: “he should neglect no means of enabling his subjects to discover the truth, and of inspiring them with good sentiments; but he should employ for this purpose only mild and paternal methods.Here he cannot command.” When it comes to external religion, “he ought to maintain it in the purity of its institution, to take care that it be faithfully observed in all its public acts and ceremonies, and punish those who dare to attack it openly” (§134). But while he can prohibit certain actions, he cannot coerce any: “he can require nothing by force except silence, and ought never to oblige any person to bear a part in external ceremonies.”
How to Deal with Religious Pluralism?
But how does all of this work in circumstances of religious pluralism? While Vattel sees the advantages of formal religious establishments such as were almost universal in Europe in his time, he knows that this doesn’t mean that everyone in the nation will share the established religion. Indeed, he recognizes that religious diversity is to some extent an inevitable feature of the landscape; he does not celebrate it the way that moderns do, but takes it seriously as a question of statesmanship.
Thus, he first considers the duties of a nation where there is, as yet, no established religion. In such a case, “the nation ought to use the utmost care, in order to know and establish the best,” and it will follow a matter of course, he thinks, that whichever religion “shall have the approbation of the majority shall be received, and publicly established by law” (§130). The ruler, to be sure, can try to influence the majority; he “may doubtless favour that which to him appears the true or the best religion,—may have it announced to the people, and, by mild and suitable means, endeavour to establish it” (§132). Indeed, since he is charged with seeking his people’s welfare, what else would he do? “But in this he has no right to use authority and constraint.”
But what if, after the nation settles on its established faith, a large dissenting minority remains? Reminding his readers “that liberty of conscience is a natural right,” he says that in such cases, the minority must either be allowed to emigrate in peace, or else given freedom to practice its religion. The latter he prefers, since it would be tragic for the nation to lose some of its most conscientious citizens, but he realizes that it may be difficult in some contexts for the two religions to peacefully live side-by-side. Thus, “if there be reason to fear that they will produce divisions among the citizens, and disorder in public affairs—there is a third method, a wise medium between the two former” (§130): to form a federated republic, where cities or states can establish their own religions and regulate their internal affairs, while uniting in one larger confederacy for purposes of foreign policy. This was the practice of his own Switzerland, and this was also the early model for the American states—recognized in the First Amendment, with its promise not to interfere in local state religious establishments.
What about nations where there is already an established religion? Well here, the default course should be conservative: to protect, support, and preserve the existing religion of the people as that which matches their convictions and temperament, and binds the society together. And yet if the goal is to worship God rightly, an established church must always be open to change and reform, so long as changes are not “attempted upon slight grounds, without necessity, or very important reasons” (§131). Again, the ruler will use whatever influence he can to restrain religious changes that seem dangerous, “but to acquit himself of this duty in a manner equally just and wise, he ought never to lose sight of the character in which he is called to act, and the reason of his being invested with it” (§133). That reason is the good of the public, not the honor of God. “It is a principle of fanaticism, a source of evils, and of the most notorious injustice, to imagine that frail mortals ought to take up the cause of God, maintain his glory by acts of violence, and avenge him on his enemies.”
But what if, despite the opposition of the establishment, “a new religion spreads, and becomes fixed in the minds of the people, as it commonly happens” (§131)? Well then we must fall back on the same prudential considerations just mentioned: “to pay attention to the number of those who follow the new opinions,—to remember that no earthly power has authority over the consciences of men,—and to unite the maxims of sound policy with those of justice and equity.”
Public Religion in an Age of Toleration
The maxims of sound policy will not look the same in every age. Indeed, given Vattel’s concern with the maintenance of public peace, the statesman must always have a careful eye toward public opinion. Whereas in the sixteenth century or the seventeenth, the mere presence of two different religions and forms of worship might have been enough to provoke violence and even civil war, today we have become quite accustomed to pluralism. Indeed, in the 20th century or the 21st, the attempt to suppress religion would be more likely to provoke violence. Vattel lived in a transitional period between the two eras.
Thus on the one hand he recognized that “A diversity of opinions and worship has often produced disorders and fatal dissensions in a state: and for this reason, many will allow but one and the same religion” (§134). On the other hand, he recognized that a spirit of toleration could prevent mere diversity from becoming an occasion for violence: “Do but crush the spirit of persecution…and you will see all sects living in peace in their common country” (§135). Indeed, Vattel was prepared to “boldly affirm that the most certain and equitable means of preventing the disorders that may be occasioned by difference of religion, is an universal toleration of all religions which contain no tenets that are dangerous either to morality or to the state.”
Religious liberty, then, is a real achievement, but not one that can be simply taken for granted. It requires the careful cultivation of a religious context in which citizens understand that God is honored by faith, not coercion, and that he himself will vindicate his honor, rather than requiring us to do so. It also requires the cultivation of a social and political context in which religious difference is not seen as a threat, and in which a shared loyalty to the nation can transcend it.
Even once achieved, religious liberty remains necessarily limited: if a religious behavior is destructive to the basic bonds of society, or is at least perceived to be, it cannot long be tolerated. (Incidentally, this is why Christians in America will not long succeed in demanding liberty to practice their religion if they cannot succeed in making the case that Christianity is actually good for the world.)
Finally, just because a nation cannot command its citizens to participate in Christian worship does not mean it cannot promote Christian faith. As we noted at the outset, “If all men are bound to honor God, the entire nation, in her national capacity, is doubtless obliged to serve and honour him.” The wise statesman recognizes that there are many “mild and suitable means” to privilege right worship without coercing it, and to discourage false worship without trying to do away with all difference. The early statesmen of America, informed by guides such as Vattel, sought to pursue just such a prudent and Protestant middle way. Although changed circumstances may require different methods today, the same principles—and the same commitment to the ideal of national faithfulness—should continue to guide us.
Bradford Littlejohn is a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.