It seems from another era, but in the last days of 2020 President Trump issued one of the strangest presidential proclamations in American history honoring St. Thomas Becket on the 850th anniversary of his martyrdom at the hands of King Henry II on December 29, 1170. A distinguished scholar of religion and politics guffawed that he had never seen anything like it—and found it offensive and unconstitutional. The focus, after all, is on a foreign religious figure who was significant over 600 years before America was founded. Trump, this leftist academic snorted, should have been honoring the power-hungry King, not the saint who defied him—though honoring a saint is constitutionally dubious.
But President Trump was recognizing Becket’s achievements as “a statesman, a scholar, a chancellor, a priest, an archbishop, and a lion of religious liberty.” Some may know the story of King Henry’s plaintive plea, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The line echoes in T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Becket. The latter play is the model for the 1964 movie “Becket” starring Richard Burton as the archbishop of Canterbury and Peter O’Toole as his king.
The proclamation is no entertainment, however, but one of the most instructive statements of Trump’s presidency.
In calling Becket a “lion of religious liberty,” one wonders whether the reasoning behind this honor has the relative historical veracity of the Hollywood movie. After all, there was one official religion for England and Becket was its head. How can such a figure be honored by Americans, who believe in freedom of religion and all the diversity of faiths that entails? Indeed, Catholics were regarded by large sectors of public opinion as enemies of religious liberty for most of American history.
But the proclamation is not Trumpian bluster. Becket acted to protect a powerful religious sphere against domination by the ambitious political power. Becket’s secretary, St. John of Salisbury, authored a treatise, Policraticus (1159), which makes the rule of law dependent on God’s authority. In this medieval view, the divine sphere legitimates the secular. Tyrannicide is an approved remedy against illegitimate rulers and tyrants. Becket would be the victim of Henry II’s assassins.
This early version of the separation of powers becomes in America a secular, limited government based on the consent of the governed. The governed, in turn, exercise religious liberty. Only a government limited in this way by a division of powers and a dependence on the reason and morality of the people can preserve freedom.
We see one product of Becket’s example in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which influenced and reflected both national and state law and politics well into the 19th century. Citizens have natural rights making them free and equal but also have the right and “obligation” to worship God in the way they choose.
In English history, Becket’s influence stretched to the Magna Carta (1215), 45 years after his martyrdom. This Great Charter of Liberties became the basis for written constitutions, in particular the American one, that limited the power of government and protected religion from political abuse. Winston Churchill noted that the document reaffirmed in a general charter a supreme “law which is above the King and which even he must not break.” For more background on the religious heritage of the American founding see Robert Reilly, America on Trial.
The American debt to Becket in its Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and First Amendment religious liberties must shape our living heritage. After all, as the proclamation reads, “No right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.”
The proclamation explicitly ties Becket’s witness to George Washington’s affirmation of religious liberty, 600 years after Becket gave his life in that cause. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . [I]t is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
What was remarkable in America is that Washington wrote these words to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. What happened in the old world of monarchies, social classes, and state religions underwent conversion in the new world of the Declaration of Independence in a nation that answered the theological-political question of western civilization in a novel fashion, in its appeal to “natural rights” and explicit welcome to Jews.
A shared morality based on natural rights makes it possible for a plurality of religions to exist within the same nation.
As we leave the holiday season, it behooves us to reflect on how other American presidents developed their Thanksgiving messages, such as Lincoln’s near the end of the Civil War. Just as it focuses on moral character in the salvation of the nation, so might we today call upon God to “inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage, and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of Freedom and Humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.”
Far from being a threat to liberty and freedom of religion, President Trump’s proclamation teaches Americans how their western heritage embodies the great struggles of the past. This should give us fortitude to aid ordinary citizens, neither saints nor martyrs, to confront future tyrants.