Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Georgia Attorney Culls Maritain Writings Into Book On Christianity In Public Square

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published June 23, 2005

With discussion topics ranging from restriction of prayer at high school graduations to end-of-life issues and abortion, many people—from atheists to evangelicals—have something to say these days about the role of Christian values in public life and the separation of church and state.

Attorney James P. Kelly III of Alpharetta over the last decade has read at least twice all or significant portions of 22 books by a leading 20th-century philosopher, Jacques Maritain. Kelly believes Maritain has something prophetic to say about why Christian politicians and ordinary citizens should indeed bring their values—like honesty, service and human dignity—into affairs of the public square.

Because of this Kelly highlighted some 500 passages to compile for a book, finding Maritain a “guiding light” offering fresh insight on the tiring debates surrounding religious liberty and the democratic state.

This Frenchman, who lived from 1882 to 1973, migrated to the United States during the Second World War to teach philosophy at Princeton University, Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, where he contemplated why American democracy had endured so well and why his native France and Europe couldn’t find the strength to mount a challenge to the growing Nazi threat until it was too late.

And as Maritain experienced the radical secularization of European society, he reasoned that for a pluralistic democracy to endure it must embody integral humanism and lead society horizontally in history but also vertically toward God in faith. Hence, Christians must bring their values into public life not to impose their religion on others but to help build a vibrant, pluralistic democracy leavened by values of freedom, and also of divine justice and love.

Kelly’s 2005 book was published by Sophia Institute Press in New Hampshire and is entitled “Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal.”

Kelly, a member of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, and a graduate of the University of Georgia Law School, is director of international affairs at the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. The Society is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to the U.S. Constitution and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is and not what it should be.

A member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Kelly and his wife Lisa have two daughters, Kate, a graduate of Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell, and Caroline, who is a student there.

The Maritain book contains about 150 of those 500 paragraphs he had highlighted. He and publisher John Barger “shared the feeling that, though Maritain is not light reading, it was important to produce a book for scholars and laymen alike that revealed his wisdom and the relevance of his thoughts to our time.”

Kelly believes that Maritain viewed democracy as a religious undertaking, as from the outset he understood that the ultimate test of democratic citizenship is a willingness to die for one’s country and, short of the ultimate sacrifice, a willingness to die to oneself in order to advance the cause of humanity.

“Although Maritain placed the person above the common good, he maintained that a person could only reach his full potential by making sacrifices for the common good and in turn, receiving the benefits of a more just and loving society,” Kelly said. “Because he felt that Gospel values were a positive influence on a democratic culture, Maritain called for an integral humanism that would result in a Christian-inspired civilization. (He wrote) ‘If the Western democracies are not to be swept away, and if a centuries-long darkness is not to come down upon civilization, they must discover in its primitive purity their vital principle, which is justice and love, and whose source is of divine origin. They must reconstruct their political philosophy and thus rediscover the sense of justice and heroism in the rediscovery of God.’”

But Kelly emphasized that Maritain was not calling for a Christian state.

“He felt that ‘civil legislation should adapt itself to the variety of moral creeds of the diverse spiritual lineages that essentially bear on the common good of the social body—not by endorsing them or approving of them, but rather by giving allowance to them.’ Thus, with his respect for the person but his appreciation for the contributions that people of diverse religious traditions make to the common good, Maritain promoted a ‘personalist and pluralist pattern of social life.’”

Maritain also warned against Christians becoming too closely aligned with either the party of the left or of the right, which causes religion to lose its independence in making an authoritative intervention for the protection of the spiritual good. In his opinion, the temptation for those on the left is to align too closely with their party out of a desire for government to remedy the evils and injustices of the prevailing social system against which the Gospel calls Christians to fight. But he also saw that for people on the right the temptation is to sacrifice independence as they exalt principles, especially in times of disorder, that help restore a state of public order.

Kelly first was exposed to the writings of Maritain when he began serving in 1996 as an advisor to the Hanna Family Foundation based in Atlanta, where he read a great deal about anti-religious liberty, anti-Catholic bigotry related to the funding of education, health and social services. He studied Maritain’s writings on the relationship between Christianity and democracy and conditions existing in modern democracies in the United States and in Europe. Kelly also started the Solidarity Center for Law and Justice in Atlanta, one of about 10 religious liberty public interest law firms in the United States that regularly file briefs and handle cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, addressing a particular aspect of a Supreme Court case that the main parties have not been able to include in their briefs. One brief that supported a religious liberty victory was for the 2001 case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the court decided that a public school district must provide the same after-school classroom access to religious youth organizations as that granted to secular ones. One losing case supported was the 2004 Locke v. Davey, in which the court upheld the right of the State of Washington to prohibit devotional theology majors from participating in a publicly funded college scholarship program made available to all other college majors.

Maritain’s writings have shed light on issues involving religious liberty and the government’s role in funding faith-based education, health and social services, Kelly continued. He noted that Maritain provides sound philosophical support for faith-based initiatives having equal access to apply for public funding, understanding the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization that can as well be done by a smaller, simpler organization.

As a Catholic parent who believes parents are the primary educators of their children, Kelly has advocated for parents’ rights to public funds to send their children to private religious schools and was first drawn to the philosopher’s stance as one of the first advocates for parental choice in education. He supported the public funding of education but did not support the government having a monopoly over it and questioned the effectiveness of purely secular models of character education.

“Maritain was a key figure in helping the Catholic Church develop a full understanding of the compatibility between Catholicism and religious liberty … Maritain predicted the materialism, consumerism and relativism that can result from the radical secularization of a democratic society,” he said.

Maritain believed that democracy needs heroic citizens, willing even to die for others.

“For him, heroism was possible only through faith in God and in a willingness to abandon all earthly comforts in pursuit of supernatural ends. He wrote that ‘People would like not to know that they are the people. It is a fact that, for good or evil, the great historical changes in political societies have been brought about by a few who were convinced that they embodied the real will of the people—to be awakened—in contrast with the people’s wish to sleep.’”

In reflecting upon why France and all of Europe had not suppressed early enough the Nazi threat, Maritain concluded that because so many French had abandoned their Catholic faith they were unable to find the courage to go to war in the face of such ominous evil. The philosopher wrote that “Nations that want to survive and live in peace have to understand that neither of these two goals is to be attained without clearly facing the risk of war; it is only when the existence of this risk has been acknowledged and accepted that it is possible to adopt a policy intelligent enough to obviate it. The European democracies understood this too late. Every democracy whose rule of life is not heroic but hedonistic will grasp such things too late.”

Maritain wrote about Europe forgetting the need to subordinate political to spiritual ends and moving away from God, and Kelly believes that phenomenon continues today, with one blatant example being its banishment from the preamble of the proposed Constitution for Europe any reference to God or of the historic role played by the Christian faith in its development, instead referring to “the cultural, religious and humanist heritage of Europe.”

And Europeans have “cast their lot” with multilateral institutions such as the European Union, the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights, all of whose success depends on a secular orthodoxy and the adoptions of universal norms that discourage the active participation and viewpoints of traditional religious groups, Kelly asserted.

As the 23-year-old Federalist Society works to reorder priorities within the U.S. legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law, it started a non-governmental organization Watch program and is establishing member chapters in Europe in order to better understand the source and nature of the international case law that can impact the U.S. federal judiciary, and the nature of NGOs that influence the development of international law. This is important, Kelly explained, as recently U.S. federal courts have referred to the decisions of courts in other parts of the world, particularly Western Europe, in rendering decisions in the human rights area. Kelly monitors international law developments in the areas of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and expression in the European Court, the United Nations and other human rights NGOs.

Kelly, like Maritain, respects the fact that government should not be involved in the establishment of a religion but believes that since the mid-20th century it has usurped the role traditionally played by faith-based organizations in caring for and educating those in need. One way he has expressed this belief is by authoring the amendment to the Georgia Constitution that eliminated viewpoint discrimination against faith-based organizations in the public funding of social, health and educational services.

As for other contentious cases like on the Ten Commandments in public places, Kelly believes that it is essential in a democracy for citizens to contemplate a higher source for their laws and conduct than mere government authority.

“These ceremonial acknowledgements of our Creator and the Judeo-Christian roots of our laws and civil society add a beneficial contemplative dimension to our civic life. As Maritain wrote, ‘The conception of society we are describing recognizes that, in the reality of things, God, principle and end of the human person and prime source of natural law, is by the same token the prime source of political society and authority among men.’”

Kelly recently attended the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where he was inspired by President Bush’s reference to how Pope Benedict XVI speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction. Kelly was also moved by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver who asserted that “if God is at the center of our lives, then of course that fact will influence our behavior, including our political decisions. That’s natural and healthy. What’s unnatural and unhealthy is the kind of public square where religious faith is seen as unwelcome and dangerous. But that seems to be exactly what some people want: a public square stripped of God and stripped of religious faith.”


For information on “Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal” visit or call (800) 888-9344.