Religious Liberty is the Fundamental Human Liberty
I have been listening to a biography of Peter the Great of Russia. One lesson is how rulers have always had freedom of conscience. They were rulers, in part, because they, and sometimes they alone, could live as they thought they must. Christian societies inherited systems from pagans and though we immediately began expanding human rights and dignity for all subjects, most often only the ruler was allowed full freedom of conscience.
This was a deep religious error for a Christian, ignoring that when God could have forced His creation to obey, God allowed us to learn good and evil by choosing evil. We could have gone the other way, but did not. God is just and so we must consent to the Good, Truth, and Beauty. If we will not, then we need not. God allows us to make eternal choices.
This soul liberty is a Divine Gift and many of our founding state governments, while flawed in other areas, captured this liberty first. It is why we correct, in time, the other failings in ways states like the Soviet Union could not.
The genius of Christian apologist and philosopher John Locke and centuries of deeper Christian thought was to take what belonged to a Tsar and give that same liberty, as much as possible, to a every person. A culmination of that better understanding of the liberty that inheres in every soul is our own Constitution and the First Amendment.
This Republic must protect religious liberty, the freedom of conscience or fail. Freedom of conscience is more essential to liberty that any other and holds the possibility of renewal.
Sometimes my students question why someone cannot just change their mind or simply be quiet: go along and get along. They are also well aware, if they know little other history, of the times religious and conscience arguments have been used by oppressors, particularly in America.
The Peculiar and Necessary Exception
First, we must acknowledge that much of our discussion takes places in the context of the extraordinary steps that were necessary to ending first our Constitutionally sanctioned allowance of slavery and state sponsored systems of segregation.
Three hundred years of slavery and then legally enforced segregation make race and racism a topic like no other in the United States. We have taken extraordinary steps against the fatally flawed consciences of other Americans, because we thought we must.
I would suggest this was necessary and proper, but that we have not even completed that process.
Weakening freedom of association based on conscience was justified, but dangerous. We missed every chance to a better solution. We continue to fail in this area.
We must not make this great exception, based on our greatest failing, the rule for how we handle every moral disagreement in the Republic or dissenters from what becomes the moral norms.
Coercion is Dangerous: Often Deadly
Second, my students fail to recognize that every change they believe to have been good and necessary took place, because of limits placed on coercion. Dissent has not always been treated as well as it should have been in the United States, but there were also always limits to coercion and remarkable liberty of conscience that has worked. Nothing was more American than what we said to a small group of religious dissidents: “You need not say the pledge.”
One can dissent from huge amounts of American life for centuries! Consider the Amish as a community exempt from much of the regulations the rest of face: left alone. Americans not only allow this to happen, but allow the dissent to flourish. Such alternative communities have provided living alternatives to the way we live now. As we consider the environment, surely we are glad that from 1789 to the present, we have allowed a growing group of people to show a different way.This is not my way or (most probably) your way, but it shows we need not adopt everything we can do as something we should do. People can say “no” and flourish.
Most important, squashing dissent is deeply dangerous, even when we are “sure” we are right. “Science,” “history,” morality have all been used well, but also badly.
Third, the moral movement, the arc of history, and embracing of science can lead to monstrous misdeeds. I spend part of my summer in the nation of Georgia and saw how moral certainty, backed by science, reason, and youth nearly destroyed a nation. Georgia is recovering, but much was lost. The young people of that time chose evil deeds, but they were as certain of their righteousness as any crusaders are. Sometimes the cause is just and we are glad, but often the cause is wicked. The old Bolsheviks in places like Georgia often meant well and did much that was good only to end up betrayed when another Georgian, Stalin, used their cause to murder tens of millions.
When coercion begins, there is very great danger.
Making a Person Appear to Agree Makes Very Bad Men
The good person takes great care lest he believes he is forcing his nature to justice when he is building the foundation for the tyrannical state.
A man cannot change how he thinks under social, legal, or any external coercion and remain a good man. A Republic may have to force external obedience, but the moment it coerces agreement or celebration, then it tempts men to the sin of Judas.
Socrates died rather than allow a self-righteous democracy coerce him into betraying wisdom. It is easier to pass as agreeing with spirit of our age, but deeply damnably destructive.
A good person resigns, disagrees, speaks up: lives out justice as best she or he can.
That is how we will learn. To disallow freedom of religion is to make some czars and the rest serfs.
We all think we are Socrates dying for philosophy, when we are more likely stubborn and not listening hard enough. This is the humility that philosophy teaches and that any lover of wisdom must have. Why? To “know thyself” was a command from the god of Delphi Socrates took seriously. In part this was the knowledge that the cosmos and the god was very great and we, even Socrates, are not such a much.
A sage took this further in light of an omnipotent being, a good God, and said: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
When we think we know the truth, when we think we see what is just, then we must speak as clearly and as boldly as we can, yet in humility. What if we are wrong? More seriously, what if even in our righteousness, if we are right, we do greater injustice to our brothers and sisters by our coercion than they were doing?
Is this the talk of a loser? Do I say this because on some prominent moral issues, my side has “lost?”
This an application of the Golden Rule, a saying of our Lord not designed to answer a falling poll number, but justice in an age given to injustice.
We must being in justice and in the fear of the Lord, end in charity. Yet the good person will have to speak courageously, kindly, and clearly about what he thinks is good, true, or beautiful. Too few Christians have courage in the public square. A few confuse rashness with courage and fail to be kind. Others of us, especially in academia, obfuscate or duck with words rather than say what God says if we think it will cost us.
God, help us to engage with courage, kindness, and clarity.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.