Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 1

I’m going to step back from commenting on current events, for awhile, in order to try to flesh out a Leveller vision for our context. I need to break this into small posts, so it will take awhile. Also, there will be interruptions such as when I am attending the annual meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, 10-15 July 2006. (See http://www.bpfna.org ) I may try my first attempt at email blogging to keep up or I may report on that event upon return.

Richard Overton, General Baptist and the most articulate pamphleteer of the 17th C. Levellers, coined the term “human rights” in 1640, over half a century before the Enlightenment. He argued for human rights using Scripture, his personal experience, and reason–whereas Enlightenment figures like Locke tended to argue using reason alone. Also, Locke and the other Enlightenment proponents of human rights tended to focus ONLY on political rights (still a tendency of political elites in the U.S.) whereas Overton’s view included three dimensions: civil liberties and political rights; economic rights addressing basic human needs; and rights of participation in community.

Now, people tend to begin discussions of human rights at the places where they feel pain, where they feel violations of their rights. In contexts of extreme poverty, hunger, and economic exploitation, basic needs and economic rights tend to come first. In contexts of isolation, alienation, and feelings of powerlessness, participation rights tend to be the first focus. Any entry point is okay, as long as the full scope of human rights comes into view and we don’t try to trade off one strand of rights for another.

Overton began with liberty of conscience because he had experienced the horrors of religious persecution. (While in jail for publishing without clearing from the censor, he encountered the many in debtors’ prison and people had to smuggle food to him and his wife–prompting Overton to begin concentrating more on economic justice for the poor. ) Overton had been in Germany during part of the Forty Years War–a war of Protestants vs. Catholics and Lutherans v. Calvinists. Religious wars and religiously inspired violence sickened ever afterword. He had later (1615) joined John Smyth’s congregation in Amsterdam just after it merged with the Waterlander Mennonites–experiencing the pain of an English exile community fled to Holland to escape religious persecution, a community that began articulating the first universal defenses of religious liberty in the English language. Back in England as a General Baptist, Overton experienced the “persecution for cause of conscience” that all the Dissenters (Baptists, Quakers, Seekers, many Congregationalists) experienced at both the hands of the Anglican establishment, and the Puritan and Presbyterian folks that wished to replace that establishment with another.

So, Overton began by arguing for liberty of conscience–that EVERYONE is entitled to their own religious and political convictions without government or other outside interference. I’ll begin there, too. In my next post, I’ll quote Overton and some other early defenders of liberty of conscience, but relate that to our contemporary context: Muslim-Christian conflicts in much of Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East; the Religious Right’s constant push for creeping theocracy in the U.S.; the demonization of Islam in the “war on terror;” the religio-phobia of the Left which drives many persons of faith toward the Religious Right. In this series of posts somewhere, I’ll try to address a good question by a conservative reader: How can one have genuine, all-consuming religious convictions (e.g., the Lordship of Christ over all of life), and still work for church-state separation and protect others’ liberty to hold to other faiths or no faith? Doesn’t this reduce Jesus (or Allah, etc.) to Lord only of one’s private, free time? The answer is “no,” but defending that answer is seldom done well anymore. I will try. This is long enough for one post.


June 29, 2006 - Posted by | convictions, religious liberty


  1. Could you tie it into how the current most prominent organization for that in the U.S. – the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) – is carrying out those goals? We can discuss history and our principles (which we probably won’t disagree on – as I’m not for a theocracy) – but that’s not the same as relating it to the AU and how the decisions and actions they take affect people – today. I want to know how their interpretation and enforcements do not conflict with the worldview of a believer.

    Intentions and sincerity are one thing – reality of truth and consequences of error are another. For example, we have the case the AU brought against the IFI prison program in Iowa. Who won? Who lost? Who were affected and how?

    Comment by Roger | June 29, 2006

  2. To a degree, I will relate each of these mini-Leveller manifestos to the organizational links on my page, including AU. I will probably not go into huge depth on particular cases, although I promise to read up on the IFI case before this series is through. Be patient. I’m going to work in steps and I am going to try to curb my tendency toward long posts.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2006

  3. I hear this charge of the Religious Right building a theocracy over and over again, but often it is unsubstantiated beyond the desire to end abortion or to define marriage as between a man and a woman, both issues that were not such before the 1960’s and the sexual revolution. So my question is what exactly are ALL Christians who identify themselves as Republicans for the sake of these two issues doing to actual try to bring about a theocracy? I guess you would have to define a theocracy and give an example of this in order to answer the question.

    I can say that I know no Christian personally who desires for a full theocracy, but does feel strongly about the previous two issues. Could it just be this is a buzzword and used not for clarification, but for propaganda? And has the word already been misused so much that it has lost its value and meaning already?

    I realize you are busy, but these question seem important if you are going to build any case for supporting a group that in my opinion actually works against Christians more than it works for them. Take for instance the example I posted on my blog of AU’s silence in the Brittany McComb free speech case, where the ACLU backed the turning off of her mic during the speech. I find the silence by AU to be quite deafening given the statements on their website concerning free speech and free exercise.

    Sorry for such a long post, but you look like you have thought through these issues and would offer an honest response, which I hope you will.

    Comment by D.R. | June 29, 2006

  4. I have more in mind than abortion and same-sex marriage. I’ll spell them out, but it would be foolish to try to get to conclusions before laying the groundwork. Do some cry “theocracy” too quickly? Yes, but no one can deny the current attempt to make not only non-Christians into second class citizens, but even Christians who disagree with the Religious Right into both “fake Christians” (our faith is CONSTANTLY challenged) and second class citizens. That is evil.

    Again, I’ll get to specifics after laying the groundwork.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2006

  5. Michael,
    I have a question in this first post…

    >the demonization of Islam in the “war on terror;”

    What do you mean by this statement? Please clarify. Define your beliefs on spiritual warfare.


    Comment by Roger | June 29, 2006

  6. What I mean by “the demonization of Islam” will become clear. You keep wanting me to answer every question at once. Stop that! And, no, I will not discuss the bogus topic of “spiritual warfare.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2006

  7. I’ll be patient and wait, but thanks for making it clear that you intend on answering the questions. I appreciate your candor and willingness to discuss this openly.

    Comment by D.R. | June 30, 2006

  8. People are free to comment and even to disagree freely. However, I don’t want to get sidetracked onto other issues. That’s what I meant by calling spiritual warfare “bogus.” I should have used a less offensive term, but the topic is a distraction, so I won’t address it. I will treat attempts to go off topic to other discussions as spam and delete them.

    If someone is desperate to discuss something I am less interested in discussing, they are free to discuss them on their own blogs.

    I apologize if this policy seems harsh, but it is the only way I can see to keep my blog from being taken over as others have been and hijacked for other purposes.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 30, 2006

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