Book Review: Breidenbach, Michael, “Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America” (Harvard University Press, 2021)
Residents of Stafford County, Virginia, often drive past a large metal crucifix on Route 1. It is dedicated to the Brent family and boasts a plaque singing praises of their quiet work for religious freedom. The Brents were early settlers of Virginia’s upper Northern Neck in the 17th Century, and as the region grew became local civic leaders—militia captains, members of the House of Burgesses, counsels to Virginia’s governors. They were also Catholics, living in a largely Protestant society at a time when theological questions burned more intensely for secular politics than they do in our slouching postmodernity. Yet while the Brents’ plaque celebrates them for courage and conviction, and details a few of their exploits, it does not quite bring their times to life.
And what were those times like? Recall that in the 17th Century, the religious convulsions unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were still reverberating and would take some time to stabilize. The history of England since the 1530s had been pocked by bloody intrigues between English Protestants and English Catholics, with the crown of England’s independence or functional submission to Catholic Spain and France often on the line. English colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America were constantly under predation by Spanish raiders as a result. Under this strategically dangerous situation, the English crown did what it could to protect its own internal integrity without unduly oppressing its subjects, and so a variety of measures—most importantly, a series of loyalty oaths the Stuart kings required of their ministers, and rulings on toleration in the colonies—were imposed for both administrative and unifying reasons. These tended to have the effect—as measures to promote unity by drawing lines of benevolent exclusion often do—of isolating outside minorities, in this case Catholics, and both delegitimizing their social presence and legitimizing further social pressure on them.
Under those circumstances, English and American Catholics did what they could with what they had, and the Brents of Stafford rose to some social prominence, leadership, and respectability, despite the paranoia of their neighbors. Other Catholics in the colonies did so as well, and those in Maryland in particular were able to leave an imprint which would last long beyond their struggles and ad-hoc arrangements for survival, to influence the long-term directions of the development of American liberty itself.
As a longtime resident of Stafford, I found “Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America,” by Michael D. Breidenbach, illuminating and systematic. The Brents only show up once—when the royalist Giles Brent aids the Calvert proprietors of Maryland in putting down the parliamentarian-tinged Ingle-Claiborne Rebellion, which would lead to his family’s fall from grace in the future Old Line State and their flight to the wilds of Northern Virginia. But Breidenbach puts the world of the Brents—the world of all colonial and revolutionary American Catholics—on clear display, and details, convincingly enough, the crucial supporting role Catholics played in the early story of American liberty.
Breidenbach’s book is a multigenerational political biography, detailing the public lives and careers of an apostolic succession of lay American Catholic leaders. It showcases their responses to the pressures of their times and demonstrates the intellectual and institutional implications their responses had for the development of the American Catholic Church, and of broader American understandings of religious liberty and political loyalty as codified in the great state papers of the revolutionary era.
The first and last names in that succession—George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore and main visionary of the Maryland colony, and Bishop John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed in the United States—receive somewhat shorter treatment, in ways that frame the problems the central figures would face and connect those problems backward and forward in time to other moments in Anglo-American Catholicism’s Caesar-and-Christ epics. George Calvert’s life had strange parallels to that of Sir Thomas More a century before him, and John Carroll set the tenor of American Catholicism in ways that would be vindicated decades after his death by the theological triumphs of Orestes Brownson and John Courtney Murray.
Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore and the long-time proprietor of the Maryland colony until the Glorious Revolution, expanded and partly solidified his father’s dreams, in the process laying out a framework which, Breidenbach claims, “accurately approximates… the US Constitution’s federal church-state settlement” on things like no established church, codified general religious toleration, no sectarian tests or oaths, and a benign ambiguity as to the specific interpretation of theological questions. If George Calvert was a Moses clearing the ground for English Catholics in the New World, then Cecil Calvert was a Joshua leading them into and through those first trial-and-error decades of religious freedom.
The third of the main characters under investigation, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, scion of another leading Maryland Catholic family and last living signer of the Declaration of Independence, is shown to have been the leading intellectual and political force reviving the Calverts’ arguments for Catholic toleration in American civil politics in the 1770s and 1780s, and to have been perhaps the single most important icon of Catholic compatibility with both the pluralist Protestant mainstream culture of America, and the nebulously secular, republican, and liberal thought of the American Revolution itself.
Breidenbach argues that the common thread between the Calverts and the Carrolls—who, as he notes in the introduction, were something like political opposites, the Calverts being royalist colonial proprietors trying to prove Catholic loyalty to the Stuart monarchy on the one hand, and the Carrolls being whiggish republican patriots trying to demonstrate Catholic willingness to ‘join or die’ with the Protestant republican mainstream of American revolutionary activism on the other—is the conciliarist tradition in Catholic theology. Breidenbach tells us conciliarism— a tradition in Catholicism arguing for the limited authority of the pope, and for split authority both between and within church and state—goes back to the medieval crises of the Catholic Church, and was developed for reasons of church governance unique to the medieval and early modern worlds, making at least this aspect of American founding-era thought “continuous with medieval and Renaissance debates…” But Breidenbach argues that that conciliarism’s understandings of the independent legitimacy of temporal power, and the antipapalist implications of these teachings in the church-state conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries, were reappropriated by English Catholics in Maryland, including a surprising number of English and American Jesuit priests, to thread the needle of Catholic spiritual practice amid the conditions of early modernity.
The arguments flowing from this separation of temporal and spiritual power were predictable—if the antipapalist and conciliarist view is that the Pope has no authority to remove kings, then why should Protestant kings be paranoid that their Catholic subjects might rise in revolt in response to a papal bull? If the antipapalist, conciliarist view is that Catholics owe their spiritual allegiance to Rome, but that Rome’s spiritual authority does not have deep and binding political requirements for practicing Catholics, what reason could republican nationalists validly have to imagine mitered alligators invading their shores, corrupting the virtue of free governments? The Calverts and the Carrolls and their subsequent American heirs came to the eminently-modern-sounding conclusion, that loyalty to the faith and loyalty to the sovereign need not be contradictory, even if there is also a tradition in the faith which supposes that spiritual and temporal authority are always united. They did this both as Americans and as Catholics, operating from within both traditions and feeling both sets of loyalties as their own—they did not do this merely as American political theorists trying to cordon off a private spiritual sphere.
This dispensation, of course, is how many American Catholics nowadays understand themselves, and likely roughly how your average Catholic would respond if pressed by some liberal abortion advocate or conservative immigration hawk on whether they could be a ‘real American’ while in communion with Rome. And there’s a reason for that; Breidenbach’s view seems to be that the conciliarist tradition in early American Catholicism basically prefigured the 19th and 20th Century development of the American Catholic Church as a national church integrated into America’s pluralist religious cultural hearth. He does not talk much about the diversity of sects elsewhere in America—the book focuses mostly on those times American Catholics ever squared off against majoritarian Anglicans—but the thesis fits the American plural religious landscape as much as it would a majoritarian one.
Like the best works of history, Our Dear-Bought Liberty is relevant to the present without explicitly attempting to make itself relevant to the present. In 2021, there is, after all, a large contingent of American Catholic intellectuals sometimes called ‘integralists’ who espouse a completely different, almost reverse, understanding of church-state relations—and the church’s teachings on church-state relations—than what Breidenbach argues has been central in the American Catholic tradition. It does not appear as though Breidenbach wrote this highly detailed work of historical chronicling as a snarky broadside against the recent polemical books of Patrick Deneen or R.R. Reno. That being said, Breidenbach’s book adds an enlightening counter-perspective to current intra-Catholic conversations on the history of the faith. It is a refreshing reminder, in this day of constant rediscovering of forgotten traditions, that every tradition has plenty of variants, and there may well be as much diversity within powerful traditions like Catholic social thought and English jurisprudence, as there is between them.
Breidenbach’s work also, quite usefully, helps complexify the common understandings of American civic and legal thought— ‘American ideals,’ to use the unhelpful common parlance—as having been essentially based in the Enlightenment and having emanated mostly from the minds of a few brilliant figures. Without denigrating the importance of Madison’s and Mason’s and Jefferson’s thought on religious freedom and their decisive work in the 1770s and 1780s in writing it into American law and mythos for all time, Breidenbach demonstrates that other thinkers were approaching the same issues in many of the same ways in the decades before the drawing-up of the Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom and the Bill of Rights. The same solutions were arising as much out of practical experience as from reference to first principles. Again—it does not seem that Breidenbach is singling out the types of folks who write for the Claremont Institute or Law & Liberty. But his work does make a helpful counterpoint to systematic-rationality-focused interpretations of American thought. It is a refreshing reminder that every tradition, every set of truths, comes from somewhere and arises at some time, and perhaps might help us better interpret the meanings of the truths we hold.
In my mind, the most interesting questions raised by Breidenbach’s history of early American Catholics, are not about religion and religious liberty at all. In the introduction, Breidenbach notes that there has been a “transition from theological to political discourse as the central language used to discuss contested issues” which seems true at first glance. But is it true, in fact? If it is, when did that transition happen? And how do you distinguish between ‘theological’ and ‘political’ discourse? A quick look at the mixed rhetoric and styles of, for starters, the counterculture of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, the conservative movement and Moral Majority trend of the late 20th century, and the recent trends labelled ‘Woke’ and ‘Trumpist’ by their detractors, suggest that our political culture is not so spiritually disenchanted as the theorists of decadent modernity usually imagine us to be.
Walter McDougall, the historian of U.S. foreign policy, has spilled large quantities of ink on the ‘American Civil Religion,’ adapting earlier ideas from Robert Bellah and others, and usually looking at American Civil Religion less as a prospect for national unity, and more as a fighting faith always threatening to boil over and leave chaos and hypocrisy in its wake. It seems to me that everything Breidenbach writes about as being under contestation by monarchy-aligned Protestants and Pope-aligned (or Pope-skeptical!) Catholics is probably under equal contestation by contemporary American political and ‘civil-religious’ factions, many of which would doubtless excommunicate each other if they could.
The big question Breidenbach’s book raises is this: can Americans of diverse commitments and plural backdrops survive together in the same political community, without routinely oppressing and destroying each other, or are they forever condemned to the same cycles of political and religious violence and displacement known since time immemorial? Breidenbach looks to the colonial past—before the American Constitution was drafted, before the American Civil Religion had begun its long march from Philadelphia—and gives a tepid, qualified ‘yes,’ because it’s been done before in the Catholic American experience. Conciliarism in American life was never, in his view, a full answer sprouting from the depths of first principles and explaining all things. It was then, and is now, a practical response to the only-partly-reconcilable questions of complex society, the choice some men of old made, and it has subsequently shaped both American Catholic life and the structure of American religious liberty.
And maybe that’s the best we can get—not a solution, per se, but a structure for ongoing negotiated and renegotiated resolutions, like all the best American institutions have been.
Luke Nathan Phillips is Publius Fellow for Public Discourse at Braver Angels.