Church, State and Rhetoric in the Political Thinking of Orestes Brownson

Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was an American political theorist, Transcendentalist, a convert to Roman Catholicism and an anti-slavery advocate who developed some of the more enduring arguments against the Confederacy. While this author believes he is wrong on that topic in particular, his arguments in general are serious ones and deserve to be analyzed in depth. Brownson was a traditionalist and generally well disposed to what today are “southern values.”

One central theme is that the religious and political elements of a nation are never separate. They cannot be separated since the ideas in one are already present in the other. This paper will attempt to make Brownson’s comments on these issues coherent, creating a fully workable model of church-state relations. The main way this can be done is to recall that “church” does not mean an administration of a sect.

It means the collected wisdom of the body of believers over time. That his views developed in the heat of the US Civil War and all the events leading up to it shows its urgency and significance. His disagreement with the pope over the US Civil War shows his independence without sacrificing doctrine.

“Theological principles are the basis of political principles” he states, stressing that the universe is not separated into distinct parts because academics say it is, but its parts form a coherent whole (Brownson, 2003: 259-60). The intellectual result is his argument that:

The political destiny of the United States is to conform the state to the order of reality, so to speak, to the divine idea in creation. Their religious destiny is to realize the normal relations between church and state, religion and politics, as concreted in the life of the nation (Brownson, 2003: 261).

Here, “church and state” are used only symbolically, since they stand in for broader conceptions such as the spiritual world and its relation to the material and linguistic. Brownson, unlike some of his detractors, was no theocrat, but his argument is one of moderation. The two extremes are a radical separation of religion and politics, a “political atheism” on the one hand, and the purely ideal mixing of the two spheres (in all respects), on the other. The latter has never existed in the Christian world and is an ideal construction only.

The former would be to remove God’s power from the political realm or even to dispense with the spiritual altogether. This is absurd since Christ came to heal families and nations. The individual did not exist at the time as a significant category. It is the creation of industrialization. Even to make reference to the isolated “individual” in premodern times is to show an undying ignorance of history. Brownson states, “It is not the union of church and state – that is, the union or identity rather, or religious and political principles – that it is desirable to get rid of, but the disunion or antagonism of church and state” (ibid).

His broad argument is that in no way can the structure of any church be mixed with government or legislation. No one is quite sure how that would work. Would churchmen be the civil service? It’s a silly conception. However, if the state derives from the same natural law and based on the same mentality as the church, such a union is not needed. This “union” is also a purely ideal construct that has rhetorical power only. This abstract argument becomes quite concrete on the issue of slavery, which was to torment him and the country for many years into the future.

For Brownson, there were two issues: first, the evil of slavery Brownson condemned in no uncertain terms throughout the 1850s and secondly, he condemned the radical, violent and often utopian abolitionist movement. It was the church in political affairs that would prevent both extremes. Brownson used his “church and state” idea to show how both sides were wrong.

Brownson states that the ideological connection between church and state is based on a “union [that] is the intrinsic unity of principle, and the fact that, though moving in different spheres each obeys one and the same divine law” (Brownson, 268) This is not due to any specific design on the legislator’s part, but, so long as the state conforms to the nature of things, this will always be the case. The “separation of church and state” does not mean that Christians are removed from all political consideration, it is more specific in that the federal government cannot favor one sect over another officially.

It was common among abolitionists at the time to appeal to a “higher law” to justify their actions against otherwise lawful authority. This “higher law” or a law of nature, has a divine sanction that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Brownson saw the more extremes of the movement, eg John Brown, as abusing this conception and bringing it into disrepute. In his condemnation of chattel slavery, Brownson makes the argument that, regardless of what the Constitution or the courts say, slavery is an evil that should be eradicated (Krummel, 1954).

In other words, since slavery is an intrinsic evil, any institution, no matter how otherwise legitimate, errs in supporting it (Brownson, 1995: 6). Brown and company took it to an extreme where those in the institution in question forfeit their lives. Brownson mentions these ideas in an 1852 article dealing with Senator William Seward from New York making just such a claim. Seward’s famous “Higher Law” speech of 1850 was a very significant event.

A US Senator counsels civil disobedience against a Constitution and corresponding laws justifying or tolerating slavery. Brownson reminds his readers that, since the Senator holds his office from the Constitution and not this “higher law,” he, as a Senator, has no right to act on it and must follow the law regardless (ibid 10-11). In other words, he cannot argue this in his capacity of a Senator. On the other hand, the appeal to a higher authority than the Constitution is necessary to create a justification for resistance, it is impossible that these spiritual entities and ideas be eliminated from social life. Occasionally, both right and left trot them out, usually without any semblance of historical understanding, to back a specific issue, and then put that pistol back in its holster on other concerns.

The connection between this to his views on church and state revolve around his conversion to Catholicism in the 1840s. He argues that since Protestantism stresses personal judgment in all things, especially in personal interpretation of the Scriptures, the Protestant foundation of America has the negative effect of bringing this into politics. On the one hand, no government could function of its own representatives obeyed the law when it saw ethically fit, but on the other, the opposite idea of “servile obedience” is equally wrong.

The answer to the problem is that church and state have different areas of work, but they spring from the same source and have the same end. Government itself derives from the law of God in that He made human beings social. Men require the state because the individual is a myth. In making them social beings, He thus implied the nature of law and the regulation of these communities. There’s no escaping it, but this is only in general form.

The contention is that, since the nature of government is within the very concept of man himself, then anything that would harm this government’s function is sinful and ethically wrong. He argues against John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and others that no real open warfare is permissible against the slave-owning states, regardless of the error involved, because it implies that private judgment is superior to civil authority. He terms private judgment over and above the church or the state as the “grossest absurdity” for this reason (10-12). While anti-slavery, Brownson condemned John Brown, David Walker, Charles Turner Torrey and the League of Gileadites.

Putting this differently, if the abolitionists are making reference to a law higher than that of human beings, they do so as individuals, all of whom are quite fallible. This then implies that the very fallible human will is, in these cases, to be obeyed over the state, meaning that all laws might be disobeyed if one thinks them opposed to “God’s law.”

This is absurdity indeed. In concrete terms, Brownson, while a crusader against slavery, points to this absurdity in the anti-slavery argument. The issue here concerning church and state is that government is not an invention. It is part of Creation no different than trees or rocks. The form might change, but the concept is indispensable. If this divine origin of governments in general is not understood, then government itself will suffer.

His article on the Fugitive Slave Law, written in 1851, argues that slavery predated the Constitution and was taken for granted by it. It is part of the law of the American republic and so, until it can be repealed, it should be followed without fail. Brownson does argue that the Fugitive Slave Act is ridiculous, since the hunt for slaves is far more expensive them the slave himself. Bad laws have irrationality built into them.

The Church, and he is referring to the Church of Rome, is the arbiter of when the state is to be resisted and when it is not (ibid, 12). This is not a theocracy either, but makes reference not to the individual churchmen ruling at a specific place and time, but the tradition and historical experience of the church. It is a vulgar nominalism to define “church” as the group of men running the institution at any given time.

Part of the divine nature of government is Justice which, in part, implies the rule of reason over the appetites. It is this imbalance that slavery is founded upon. “The essence of slavery is the predominance of passion over reason. . .” (Brownson, 1995: 20-21). His argument with the John Browns of the world is that in choosing which laws to obey based on private judgment, all government collapses. If that happens, then the design of God is frustrated. Hence, abolitionists advocate freedom by destroying that which guarantees it, the state.

The result is that the likes of The League have no choice but to exaggerate the evils of the institution to justify their violence. Once someone dedicates himself to violence for a cause, that person then has to paint a picture of utterly dire need and immediate action or some catastrophe will occur. They have no choice. Brown wildly exaggerated the actions of some owners in order to justify his extreme reaction to the evils of slavery. Again – he must do this for his own conscience’s sake.

The state guarantees freedom in the sense that it restrains the rule of passion over reason. The greedy man is so overcome with love for money that he robs people of theirs. The rapist is so contemptible of women that he must impose himself on them in the most violent and intimate way possible. In both cases, passion rules the reason and will, and as a result, the state has the right to use force in these cases to stop the irrational results of it. Its the very definition of evil and sin.

The upshot of this lies in the notion that, while the Founding Fathers were Protestant, that theology cannot sustain the republic. As mentioned above, once private judgment is the “standard,” government either falls apart entirely or becomes an absolute monster to be obeyed no matter what. In the 1840s and 1850s, revolution was everywhere, and the abolitionist movement came in part from the “social ferment which in the 1840’s found emotional expression in numerous frenetic movements throughout the North and West which later became channeled into abolitionist agitation” (Krummel, 23). In Leliaert’s article, he describes Brownson’s position this way:

Sovereignty, for Brownson, was that “which is highest, ultimate; which has not only the physical force to make itself obeyed, but the moral right to command whatever it pleases,” and to demand obedience. This latter sovereignty was defined as absolute, while relative sovereignty was accorded to the state, or the highest civil or political power of the state (Leliaert, 1976: 9).

The highest sanction is Justice, not the people, not the government, not the elite. Justice is eternal, divine and is above all written law. John Brown does not stand for a “higher law” because if one were to being shooting supporters of a practice one finds abhorrent, the consequence of this would be disastrous. Brown and his ilk are not about “freedom” but are following the same rule of passion for dominance that motivates slave owners (Brownson, 1885a: 182-183).

Soon, their frenzy forces them to see violent slave owners everywhere, all of whom of course, are obsessed with torturing their slaves without reason unless he takes immediate action. He became as delusional as all men consumed with these kinds of passion. Regardless of the cause in question, the mind of John Brown, twisted by the death of his children, is a danger to himself and all those who he did not think sufficiently militant to the cause. Such groups end up killing one another.

Justice, an aspect of the divinity in general, is the only real appeal. Kings can govern poorly, as can generals, “the people” and bankers. In his article titled “The Union of Church and State” (1867), he writes “The separation of church and state in our age means not merely the separation of the church and state as corporations or governments, which the popes have always insisted on but the separation of political principles from theological principles. . .” .(Brownson, 1867). In no manner has a corporate merger of church and state ever been advocated, practiced or accomplished. It is a rhetorical weapon only and, like most rhetorical weapons, are dishonest.

Yet, it is this spiritual realm where the idea of “right” belongs. “Right” cannot be given by the state, nor attached to anything physical (since it would not then be a principle), but is a free, spiritual object. He asks “on what do equal rights rest?” (Brownson, 1884: 133). It can only be in this same spiritual realm, of which the church (and the sects in general in the US) is a specific manifestation. Once gone, the state alone remains.

Those rejecting the spiritual ground of these rights reject the right itself. Not only that, but the total equalization of “rights” rests on nothing. It is yet another rhetorical weapon without content. A “right” is a spiritual thing and to “equalize” these, an impossible task never before accomplished, then a strong, spiritual basis must be posited. This is never, ever done.

If a “right” is eternal, immutable and contravened only under the most extreme circumstances, then it cannot be physical. Physical things are always changing. It must be identical with itself. One’s demand for freedom of assembly is the same today as it was in Brownson’s time. He rationally concludes in saying that it is the church, Christianity or the Church of Rome most specifically, where Right, Justice and Truth lie (Brownson, 1884: 139).

Brownson reminds the reader of the battles the popes fought against the empires of the middle ages and Renaissance. The church cannot be subject to the political state for the same reason that the mental and spiritual world cannot be dominant over the physical desires. He is at war with the mentality of those who hate the church so much, that any law that might be influenced by church doctrine must be rejected on some invented “constitutional” ground. This is not because the law is bad, but because it might place Christianity in a positive light.

In the same volume of Brownson’s works, the article “Church and State” (1870) attempts to get a handle on the American conception of this separation, which today in2018, has not even remotely been clarified rationally. The Constitution and general American political idea was a spiritual one, since the stress on “natural rights” assumed a spiritual realm where these rights reside. This alone suffices for him to conclude that the US, while not favoring one sect over another, recognizes the only possible grounding of a “right” being natural law and the God who must have created it (Brownson, 1884b: 277). Given this, the political concepts of “equality” or having “equal rights” are not political at all, but spiritual and hence, theological.

To summarize, there are several elements at work: first, Brownson’s abstract idea that Justice, an eternal, spiritual reality, is the only sovereign power in the cosmos. This Justice, in part, is reached through the domination of reason and thought over passion aimed at the correct object.

The second element is the Civil War, showing two contrasted evils: John Brown’s idea on the one hand, and slavery on the other. In fact, it was the advocacy of violence from the likes of William Lloyd Garrison that made a civil war inevitable. It was his advocacy of the murder of slaveowning families that forced the South – slaveowning or not – to be very worried as to the real agenda of the abolitionists. They dug in as a result. Unless there is an ultimate power that can decide when a law or practice is morally invalid, the two sides, in all issues, will slaughter each other throughout history. The slaughter of 600,000 white, male Americans to free slaves is a highly dubious bargain.

Alan Guttman in a hostile article, tries to make Brownson into a theocrat. He argues that this “ultimate arbiter” can only be the Church of Rome and he dishonestly connects scattered passages together as if they form a single argument (Guttmann, 1965: 487). The problem is that Guttman errs in thinking that the “church” means the current pope or the bishop of Green Bay. Rather, it is the collected wisdom of the church and its doctrine over time, not churchmen. It is an error to see Brownson as advocating any sort of blind obedience. Guttman is also Jewish, and this no doubt colors his opinions of a church he was raised to hate.

Brownson’s article on the anti-draft riots of 1863 put these concerns to rest, since he notes that much of the hierarchy in the US was pro-southern without being pro-slavery, seeing war and immediate emancipation worse than the present institution. They were proven right. They were wrong to be in favor of secession, or so they argued, though this was the only rational reaction to the rhetoric of the northern abolitionists from Senators to journalists to average souls. In fact, he challenges the pope himself when it was made clear to him that Rome wanted an immediate end to the war.

His response was to say that, regardless of the pope’s extraordinary authority, he is wrong to counsel, in effect, a nation to “consent to its dismemberment” (Brownson, 1885: 432). Relative to slavery, the ancient teaching of the church is more significant than a single political opinion from Rome. The real issue is that “The cause of humanity and of the church is today on the side of the poor, despised, degraded, and unhappy 4 millions of negro slaves. . . sneer not at the “nigger,” for today it is in him that we must find our Lord, and in serving him that we serve the church of God” (Brownson, 1885c: 446).

He goes so far as to state during the height of the war that the violence and bloodshed is morally purifying. It is God’s way of clearing the field of this terrible sin. He knew the union victory was assured only because he knew it was God’s cause, but most certainly, this was not his only argument against it.

History is the slow, often maddening, march of Providence. Justice is slowly, often tortuously, being born through the stupidity, violence and ferocity of human beings. The Civil War is part of this. Slavery denied the humanity of many black Africans in the US, or so it was said – slaveowners denied this. If true, it had no right to exist. Alas, it did exist and remained very profitable on a large scale.

The bigger issue was the moral condition of the slaves. Would they just be cannon fodder for northern interests? Yes they were. Were they educated enough to take their place as landowners and citizens? Most certainly not, as the experiment of the Massachusetts in suddenly freeing their slaves in the late 18th century proved. They were quickly re-enslaved. Until slaves had the ability to stand up for themselves, “emancipation” was just a word. “Freedom” as an abstraction does not exist. Freeing slaves is yet another emotional and rhetorical weapon with no content.

As it turns out, the Republicans, the Army and the US Senate simply herded illiterate slaves to the polls to pack the state houses with Republicans as almost all whites were disenfranchised. The southern cause was correct on this score, though Brownson could not have known this. He was opposed to slavery, but like all rational people, realized that immediate emancipation without land was a disaster.

Matters were made worse when slaves were not granted land though it was very plentiful and cheap in the south. The same abolitionists quickly bought this land up and made fortunes for themselves rather than granting it to former slaves. This proves the abolitionist cause to be fraudulent.

Brownson’s idea of church and state is interesting, original and worth studying. As a minority in the US looked on suspiciously, the Roman church (and in his case, a voluntary convert) required a vision that fit both the medieval inheritance as well as the American circumstance. The Civil War was the backdrop of Brownson’s theory and permitted him to see the spiritual world unfolding in the gore of the political.

At a minimum, Brownson was arguing that the “church,” made separate from government, is fully legitimate. It does not mean that the spiritual principle is thus banished from political debate. Today, the general ignorance of the American intellectual forbids this simple point from even being mentioned.

This separation loses its legitimacy when the revolutionary demands that, because an idea comes from a religious group, it violates this “separation” theory, one totally foreign to the founders of the Constitution. The very “sacredness” of this separation suggests that it too implies a spiritual realm where the principle can be envisioned as existing eternally. Without it, “rights” cannot exist. Men are mere bundles of nerve endings and life has no real value; one hunk of matter is as good as another.

Brownson was careful to say that no one specific form of government was required of the Roman Catholic over another. Many popes would disagree with him on this. All that mattered was the nature of Justice, which also implied a standard of virtue. Freedom and social liberty only work if the population is used to self discipline, deferring gratification, and controlling emotions. Without humility and self limitation, no government can function.

The nature of “rights” ensured that there was no real separation of theology and politics, but to say that this is “the union of church and state” is a purely rhetorical exaggeration. Any time a politician speaks of these mysterious, eternal “rights” or “human dignity,” they are implying a spiritual world of immutable ideas that one can understand and refer to. These ideas cannot be interpreted away or ignored. When one permits the rule of emotion, things like slavery, robber barons, rhetorical weapons, war and John Brown result.




Brownson, OA. Watchwords from Dr. Brownson. SDW Books, 1910

Brownson, OA. “The Higher Law“ In: Vol. XVII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 1-16, Detroit: Nourse, 1885a

Brownson, OA. “The Fugitive Slave Act“ In: Vol. XVII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 7-38, Detroit: Nourse, 1885

Brownson, OA. “Archbishop Hughes on Slavery” In: Vol. XVII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 179-210, Detroit: Nourse, 1885b

Brownson, OA. “Catholics and the Anti-Draft Riots” In: Vol. XVII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 412-447, Detroit: Nourse, 1885c

Brownson, OA The American Republic. ISI Books, 2003

Brownson, OA. “The Union of Church and State“ In: Vol. XIII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 127-145, Detroit: Nourse, 1884b

Brownson, OA. “Church and State“ In: Vol. XIII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson: Politics, ed. Harry Brownson, 263-283 Detroit: Nourse, 1884a

Guttmann, A. “From Brownson to Eliot: The Conservative Theory of Church and State. American Quarterly 17 (1965): 483-500

Krummel, CF. “Catholicism, Americanism, Democracy, and Orestes Brownson.” American Quarterly 6 (1954): 19-31

Leliaert, RM. “The Religious Significance of Democracy in the Thought of Orestes A. Brownson.” The Review of Politics 38 (1976): 3-26

Matthew Raphael Johnson

Matthew Raphael Johnson is a scholar of Russian Orthodox history and philosophy. He completed his doctorate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1999. He is a former professor of both history and political science at the University of Nebraska (as a graduate student), Penn State University and Mount St. Mary’s University. Since 1999, he was the editor (and is presently Senior Researcher) at The Barnes Review, a well-known renegade journal of European history. Dr. Johnson is the author of eight books. Six are from Hromada Books, "Sobornosti: Essays on the Old Faith;" "Heavenly Serbia and the Medieval Idea;" "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality: Lectures on Medieval Russia;" "The Ancient Orthodox Tradition in Russian Literature: "The Foreign Policy of Mass Society: The Failure of Western Engagement in the Middle East;" and "Officially Approved Dissent: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Strategic Ambiguity in His Critique of Modernity." And two published by The Barnes Review, "The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism and Orthodoxy;" and "Russian Populist: The Political Thought of Vladimir Putin."

Recent Posts
Recent Comments