Orestes Brownson's Freedom of the Church: Introducing Orestes A. Brownson's Essay "Civil and Religious Freedom"
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Orestes Brownson's Freedom of the Church
Introducing Orestes A. Brownson's Essay "Civil and Religious Freedom"

Orestes Brownson's wonderful essay "Civil and Religious Freedom" (1864) provides a remarkable philosophical and constitutional defense of religious liberty. The essay bears the particular merit of bridging the traditional American understanding of religious freedom as an individual right with the corporate notion of freedom of the church, which acts, Brownson argues, as the shield of religious liberty. First, permit me a few words on this figure who has not received in recent decades the rich scholarly and public discussion he deserves. Orestes Brownson was a fixture throughout much of the nineteenth century, writing at the intersection of that period's constitutional, religious, and social controversies. Born in 1803 in Vermont, [End Page 112] the New Englander migrated across Christian denominations and modern ideologies in early adulthood. He espoused a prototype of Protestant liberation theology that believed Christianity could recruit the sentiments of the masses for egalitarian social reform. He was also a significant member of the Transcendentalists, until he concluded that this school of thought's exaltation of spirit over nature and reason was sheer madness. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., focused on Brownson's religiously informed social and political activism because Schlesinger believed it was crucial evidence of a deposit of progressivism in America well before the New Deal.1 While Schlesinger can legitimately claim the young Brownson as an American progressive forerunner, what ultimately marks Brownson's mature path is a genuine quest for understanding the truth about the human person and our capacity to understand what we should do to flourish as created and relational beings.

Brownson rejected radical Leftist political theorizing after the 1840 elections. "Mugged by reality," as it were, Brownson wrote that the 1840 presidential campaign, which featured William Henry Harrison winning the presidency on a campaign appeal of a "log cabin and hard cider," revealed to him the mob-rule aspects of mass modern politics. In short, engaging in political activism to reach egalitarian ends was just as likely to produce dastardly results. A politically wiser Brownson soon arose. Political refinement in Brownson was indelibly linked to his conversion to the Catholic Church in 1844, which concluded his theological searching and his radical political thought and style. Finding his theological home in Rome liberated Brownson from the need to vindicate a Gnostic politics of perfection. He understood that politics could not bear the ideological weight that he had placed upon it, and this entailed understanding the tragic and limited nature of politics and human existence. There is no final progress or emancipation in this refined account, but a firm awareness of how the differentiated dimensions of human nature, albeit imperfectly, are realized in various social, political, economic, and religious contexts. [End Page 113]

In this way, Brownson provided an original, robust defense of American constitutionalism and religious freedom. He saw our political order as fundamentally just because of its ability to balance and soothe the collectivist and anarchic instincts of political modernity. American constitutionalism was not perfect—Brownson articulated its own discontents quite well in The American Republic (1865)—but he also argued that it contained ample resources to uphold a dignified political order of freedom and responsibility. Brownson stated in 1853 that the question that dominated his mind and writing was articulating the proper relationship between the church and the state, or, as he frequently noted, the spiritual and temporal realms. This, he argued, "in one form or another is almost the only question discussed in our [Brownson's Quarterly] Review, [it] is precisely this question as to the relation of the two orders, the rights and powers of the spiritual order in relation to the temporal, and of the church, as the representative of the spiritual, in face of the state, the representative of the temporal."2 Brownson was a profound critic of modern political ideologies that subsumed the church under the state. He opposed political atheism because of its complete divorce of the political order from religion and morality. The publicly enforced notion that the state faces no source of authority higher than its own that can...