Walter Berns

Intercollegiate Review, January 14, 2015; reprinted from American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006).


Berns is best known for his analysis of First Amendment adjudication—especially concerning the so-called “religion clauses”—and for his more general interpretation of the role of religion in the American founding. America is essentially informed by the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke and secular in nature, Berns argued. The individual “natural rights” upon which both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are based explicitly contradict the Christian understanding of man and his duties to God and fellow man, and were known by the founders to do so. Thus, the American founding merely tolerates religion, and then only when it does not disturb civil peace. Moreover, the Constitution permits generally applicable laws that might incidentally inhibit religious practice, as long as they are not religiously specific; constitutional commitment to philosophical liberalism always has precedence.

Intercollegiate Review