On Religious Freedom, or Liberty of Conscience

Posted on March 1, 2015


We are all acquainted with the concept and practice of religious freedom. Everyone has the right to worship as they please.

And we also understand that a principle called the separation of church and state exists. This corollary is that the government is prohibited from interfering in the exercise of our religion. Or, keep your nose out of my (revival) tent.

What we are a little less reliable on is how these concepts came to pass.
Thomas Jefferson penned a statute in 1777, right in the midst of the Revolution, which was eventually ratified by Virginia in 1786 and which guaranteed freedom of religion and “disestablished” the Church of England to boot.

That’s a nice word, “disestablishment.” It has a ring of authority. It simply means that the Church of England was removed as the “established” or state religion.

This concept and practice, a “state religion,” takes us back before the Revolution when the Church of England was the “official” religion of the land. You had to be a member in good standing of the Church to enjoy all the rights and privileges and liberties of being an Englishman.
Read Thomas Jefferson’s entire “Statute for Religious Freedom” for a powerful and convincing condemnation of that practice. It’s not long and available easily online.

Jefferson, usually thought as aloof Deist, not much of a Christian, begins with the following:

“Almighty God hath created the mind free [and] all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do.”

Jefferson basically repeated the argument made by the Puritans who had escaped religious persecution to worship freely in the New World.

In the colonies, liberty of conscience, with its basis in the doctrine of free will with obvious roots in Christian Scripture, was understood as a fundamental human right, applicable to all, not simply Puritans, but Quakers, Baptists, all denominations.

Max Weber, in path breaking works on the Protestant work ethic and the rise of capitalism; ranged widely in his studies on the roots of liberty and freedom in this country.

One of his radical conclusions—based on the work of one of his friends and colleagues, Georg Jellinek– was that freedom of religion or liberty of conscience may be one of, if not the, oldest natural right of man. All the other rights of man, so eloquently phrased in the Declaration of Independence and defined in the Constitution, flowed from this universal and fundamental one, the right to worship freely.

Jellinek’s study, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, argued that the French Revolution, and, earlier, the American Revolution, were inspired not primarily by French and American political thinkers of the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, but by religious thinkers, like the Puritans, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The “inalienable, inherent and sacred rights of the individual,” wrote Max Weber, “were not of political but of religious origin.”

Weber continued, “what has been held to be the work of the [French] Revolution was in reality a fruit of the Reformation and its struggles.” Jellinek argued that the “template for the Declaration of the Rights of Man…promulgated by the French [1789] was not to be traced to Rousseau’s Contrat Social (1782) but to the various Bills of Rights that issued from Virginia and elsewhere in the 1770s and early 1780s.”

“In turn,” Weber concluded, “these documents bore the impress of the uncompromising struggle for freedom of conscience that characterized the northern European Puritan movement….”

This is a provocative, and persuasive, interpretation of the origin of the “Rights of Man,” usually thought of as principally emanating from the secular philosophes of the eighteenth century, who, in turn, were inspired by the political worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.

Where does this take us? I think it points to the absolute need for religious freedom, without interference from the State, as the cornerstone of all the other natural rights of man so well expressed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Absent this fundamental right, and its corollaries, such as the separation of church and state, and you open the door to tyranny and absolutism. Witness Islamic radical states, or wannabe nations today (ISIS, etc.).

Ask yourself: what is missing in those bizarre worlds of hate and domination? And the answer is freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. Open that door, and they collapse.

This column published as Religious Liberty Among the Oldest Natural Rights in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday Feb. 22, 2015