“Neutrality” as the New Paganism

Spinoza remarked that Moses really didn’t have to climb to the heights of Mount Sinai in order to be nearer to God, as God set out for him Ten Commandments, useful and compelling in the ordering of our lives.  God, he wrote, could have heard quite as well if Moses had remained on the plain.  For God was not afflicted by atrophying auditory nerves; nor was He hobbled by any of the other anatomical complaints that that affect fathers as they advance in age.

Spinoza would add that even if the tablets had been destroyed, on the second return from the mountain, those Commandments would still be there, still as apt, still as valid, because they were “written on the heart.”  It was an invocation of the Natural Law, the law that would be there even if it hadn’t exactly been written down.  It was the Law that St. Paul had in mind when he remarked, in Romans 2, that “when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, [they ]. . . are a law unto themselves.”

The redoubtable, late Harry Jaffa, in an essay of many years ago, offered a commentary on this scene, pointed and in jest, but it suddenly springs out with an unsettling relevance to our own age.  “Imagine Moses,” he wrote, “descending Sinai and finding the cult of the golden calf, and being told by Aaron that the people had just discovered their natural right to religious freedom.”

But what Jaffa offered as laughable has now become fully serious – and accepted even by some Catholic defenders of religious freedom.  One friend of mine, a scholar of the law who has worked in this vineyard, has remarked that “the fundamental human right to religious freedom is grounded in the truth about the human person; it is enjoyed and should be protected whether or not one’s religious beliefs are true.”

It does not ordinarily require any special genius to grasp that we can have a deep respect for people as human persons without being obliged to credit as true and plausible everything they happen to believe or consider true.   And yet this argument has stirred a new credulity, even among the professoriate when it comes to the matter of religious freedom.

In the willingness to protect a large sphere of freedom for the religious, some of my friends have been willing to accept a dramatic receding from any willingness to make judgments on the teachings that define the character of religious sects.  But as Harry Jaffa observed, “there is a rational component of any religion comprehended by the protections of the First Amendment.  The free exercise of religion does not include the right to human sacrifice, to suttee, to temple prostitution, to the use of hallucinatory drugs, or to any other of the thousand and one barbarous and savage religious practices that have been features of barbarous and savage religions.”


My friends litigating cases would accept that understanding, though they are averse to speaking of “barbarous and savage religions.”  But even so, the same friends have been willing to leave unchallenged these days the acceptance of Satanism as a sect claiming religious standing at times.  In Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) the Supreme Court refused to find an Establishment of Religion when a town council invited ministers of local churches to offer invocations.

The Court did not object when some of the prayers were quite emphatically Christian in character, but as the practice has spread now in the land, the reigning assumption has been that the invitations to speak should be available to all sects claiming to be “religions,” with no discriminations.   There is no requirement that a religion encompass the G-word (God) or the Creator who endowed us with the standing of rights-bearing creatures.

Under this dispensation, the Satanists in the country have found a new growth industry, along with the ministers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (shown in this column on October 9).  The affirmation of radical evil, for the Satanists, no longer counts as a point of disqualification.

But what seems to be serenely unnoticed is that the willingness to acquiesce in this style of ecumenism is not at all a position of large-natured tolerance and “neutrality” toward religion.  As Gunnar Gundersen has argued, it is rather a slide back into paganism.

Imagine that we have a scheme that every day offers public celebration of another religion.  There will be days for Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Muslims, Satanists, and the burning of incense for new sects on the scene.   Implicit in the scheme is that none of these religious groups rests on a teaching that is arguably truer than the others.

Instead of “respecting” these religions, the scheme begins by refusing to respect the truth of these religions, or respecting the adherents of these religions as they understand themselves. At the time of the American Founding, our religion, as Jefferson said, was “practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man.”

As Harry Jaffa put it, “the dictates of right reason [were thought to be] the voice of God no less than sacred scripture.” It was because, as he said, “religion in America acknowledged the authority of reason – of the laws of nature – no less than of revelation, that religion became the first of our political institutions.”


*Image: Descent from Mount Sinai (or Moses and the Tablets of the Law) by Cosimo Rosselli (and workshop), 1481-82 [Sistine Chapel, Vatican]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.