Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century British statesman, has long been a popular figure for political conservatives to cite. But his views on religion get relatively little attention. This is a shame, because Burke has a lot to offer those concerned about matters of religion, morality, and politics in contemporary American life. He is a figure who may make some orthodox Catholics uncomfortable because, despite placing great emphasis on the importance of religion, he sometimes seems unconcerned about precisely which religion one follows. His writing on religion is centered on its role in politics, society, and morality, not on theology or questions of salvation. But his perspective is both sophisticated and pious, and speaks to the need for a deep sense of reverence—and of how to maintain it.
This consecration is made, that all who administer the government of men, in which they stand in the person of God himself, should have high and worthy notions of their function and destination; that their hope should be full of immortality; that they should not look to the paltry pelf of the moment, nor to the temporary and transient praise of the vulgar, but to a solid, permanent existence, in the permanent part of their nature . . . .
One thing which made religion a key to virtue was the humility which Christianity promoted. Most of our political and social problems, Burke believed, stemmed ultimately from vanity, the chief of the vices. We must recognize that we are a part of an order greater than ourselves if our lives are to have meaning and virtue and if our society is to be a humane and stable one. One of the things which most appalled Burke about the French Revolution was its attack on the church. He recognized that this would doom the project, since “all other nations have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing originally or by enforcing with greater exactness some rites or other of religion.”
Despite Burke’s defense of church establishment, he was also a supporter of religious liberty. And, he bitterly attacked the anti-Catholicism laws imposed on Ireland. Such laws were eroding Irish society, destroying social and cultural bonds and transforming the population into an atomized mob ripe for rebellion. Government attacks on new and minority churches were bad enough, but attacking the major, ancestral church of a society was deadly. He warned against the promotion of a generic “Protestantism” understood as anti-Catholicism, pointing out that an atheist, with his rejection of all Catholic doctrine rather than just portions of it, is “the most perfect Protestant.” In attacking Catholicism, government was attacking religion, piety, and, ultimately, society itself.
Notably, Burke displayed great respect for, and interest in, major non-Christian religions such as Hinduism and Islam. Indeed, in opposing the openly tyrannical governance of India by the fortune-seeking men of the East India Company, he noted that, in contrast, rule in traditional Islamic states (such as those they were supplanting) was—at least in theory—never arbitrary. This was because the prince’s actions were constrained by Islamic law, and clerics had the moral authority to help check his excesses. (Burke was not, of course, speaking of a modern radical Islamist state.)
Burke’s combination of emphasis on the importance of religion and apparent lack of concern regarding precise religious doctrine and practice is demonstrated by his historical writing on the conversion of England to Christianity. He notes that,
Whatever popular customs of heathenism were found to be absolutely not incompatible with Christianity, were retained; and some of them were continued to a very late period. Deer were at a certain season brought into St. Paul’s church in London, and laid on the altar; and this custom subsisted until the Reformation. The names of some of the church festivals were, with a similar design, taken from those of the heathen, which had been celebrated at the same time of the year.
It is clear that Burke views this merging of the Christian and pagan favorably, noting that the Pope had “a perfect understanding of human nature” since he avoided abrupt changes “in order that the prejudices of the people might not be too rudely shocked by a declared profanation of what they had so long held sacred.” For Burke, it is maintaining a sense of the sacred that is paramount. This sense is bound up not only in religious doctrine, but in various rites, places, and celebrations, and is linked to their venerable nature.
An assumption that Burke simply likes all religion indiscriminately would be very wrong. He actually discriminates very sharply among forms of religiosity. As a young man he published a book, A Vindication of Natural Society, which was in part a satire on the advocacy by Bolingbroke and others of “natural religion.” The term “natural religion” referred to religion accessible entirely through natural reason; its popular advocates tended to be hostile toward traditional Biblical Christianity. For Burke, this “natural religion” was something to be mocked; his broad approval of religiosity did not extend to religions which were largely created by their adherents. His well-known support for religious toleration also stopped with Unitarians, who, he argued, were much more committed to particular political doctrines than to religious ones, and, hence, could be considered a political, rather than religious, group.
Burke proclaimed approvingly that “there is no rust of superstition, with which the accumulated absurdity of the human mind might have crusted it [religion] over in the course of ages, that ninety-nine in a hundred of the people of England would not prefer to impiety.” For him, from a moral and political perspective, specific religious doctrines and practices are generally not particularly important, but orthodoxy is. Burke thus emerges in the usual position of a defender of orthodoxy—of almost any type. Religion “works,” in his view, when it stands apart from the whims of those who practice it. Only then can it enable self-discipline, give meaning, and provide a real sense of the sacred and the sublime in life. Critically, only orthodox religion effectively promotes recognition of the existence of standards beyond those of mere convention. Vague spirituality, or some made-up religion, or Christianity scrubbed and watered-down to conform to the sensibilities of the “moderns” of the day, does not suffice.
Burke once remarked that “that great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours.” As a young man he was fascinated by the sublime, which he understood to be tied to power, infinity, venerability and, especially, mystery. For something to be sublime it must be beyond one’s full knowledge and beyond one’s control; Burke contrasted a sublime portrayal of a horse in Job with a non-sublime description of a horse’s usefulness. An experience of the sublime reminds us of the human condition, which is both one of limitation and one of connection to that which is greater than ourselves. It thereby inspires the right sort of humility and responsibility. The sacred and the sublime are linked; meaningful religion must be sublime, and to be such, it cannot be a mere tool of human invention for human convenience.
We’ll never know exactly what Burke’s theological views, or private religious views, were. (At a personal level he never gave any sign of being anything other than a pious and orthodox Christian.) We do know that politically he devoted his career to fighting against “caprice.” To him caprice inevitably led to abuses of power, and to tyranny or anarchy. His fight was, effectively, against the postmodern sense of arbitrariness, which he saw appearing on the horizon. Burke teaches us that religion plays a critical role in fighting against arbitrariness or caprice. For him, a humane, stable, and free state requires not just religious tolerance and an acceptance of pluralism, but a broad embrace of a particular sort of religiosity—orthodox religiosity—in private and public life. Only religion of this sort can stand above society and the state while heightening our awareness of the sacred, thereby setting bounds to our politics and elevating our lives.
William F. Byrne is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at St. John’s University (NY), and is the author of Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics.
This essay originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with their gracious permission.