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

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 2

The word “conscience” comes from the Latin meaning “to know together,” which points to the truth that our deepest convictions (religious, political, etc.) are seldom simply a product of isolated reasoning or navel gazing. We usually come to our convictions in community–as a child of a particular family, living in a particular village, as part of a particular culture, going to a particular church (temple, mosque, synagogue, etc.). But if our convictions are truly ours, we have to be able to mentally distinguish ourselves from our context enough to reflect on our convictions and claim them. When we do this, we sometimes (often?) find ourselves modifying (slightly or more than slightly) one or more of the convictions of our family or village, etc.

Sometimes the change is so great that it amounts to a conversion (religious or otherwise) and this can either (a) draw us deeper into the community, maybe even bringing us to a position of leadership, (b) push us to the margins of the community as we are still recognized as “one of us, but a bit odd,” (c) send us to a different but related community which houses a different strand of our tradition(s) (recognized by us as spiritually or politically or philosophically related, but no longer immediate “family,”), or (d) remove us from the home community entirely–either to join another or to remain isolated and outside–a stranger in a strange land.

The principle of “liberty of conscience” recognizes that beliefs cannot be imposed from without–and should not be. Let us take religious convictions as our primary example: Any faith that is authentic, must be free. Attempts to impose faith by physical force either result in religious wars or in hypocrisy as nonbelievers in whatever is the ruling orthodoxy pretend to views they do not hold in order to avoid persecution. As Overton and other early modern defenders of liberty of conscience pointed out, Jesus did not, in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) command the making of disciples from all nations by means of coercion, but by teaching–leaving the conscience free to accept or reject the truth presented. This was a departure from the Medieval view that “error has no rights.”

One reason that religious faith has flourished so much in the U.S. compared to Europe has been the legalization of this view in the First Amendment, denying any law even respecting an establishment of religion, and protecting the free exercise of all religious views? Are there any limits to this? Only where the common good would be threatened. Thus, one can believe all one wants to that one’s god demands human sacrifice, but any attempt to put it into practice will run afoul of laws against murder and the courts will not accept the First Amendment as a defense.

That one is an easy call, but other cases it is harder to weigh the common good against religious practice: The State of Florida tried to outlaw animal sacrifices, particularly chickens, but since poultry may be killed for food or other purposes, the Supreme Court decided (rightly in my view) that the law was deliberately trying to stamp out the religion of Santeria (a Carribbean import that combines elements from African traditional religions, Native American traditions, and popular/unofficial Roman Catholicism) and thus was an unconstitutional violation of the free exercise clause. In any case where the state feels compelled to constrict the conscience of any individual or group, it must show that the public is harmed–not merely inconvenienced or, as in this case, revolted.

Another difficult example was the Mormon practice of polygamy. (This is no longer official teaching by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but many Mormons continue to practice polygamy in secret in Utah and surrounding states. The Reorganized Church of JC of LDS–recently renamed the Community of Christ–which claims to be the original church and is headquartered in Missouri, has never accepted polygamy.) Clearly the practice of multiple wives offended the majority culture (including me), but did it harm society? I find this a very tough call. There is some evidence that the 19th C. Mormons pressured young girls into these marriages at ages that would now be illegal, but no younger than many girls of the day were married off. (It is worth remembering that, for most of history, including biblical history, girls were married as soon after the onset of puberty as their menstrual cycles were regular!!) There is no reliable evidence that spouse or child abuse happened in polygamous Mormon households more often than in other households. I find polygamy offensive–it grates against my understanding of the marriage covenant, but it was practiced throughout the Bible and never condemned in any Scripture I can name. Even if I could demonstrate that Scripture condemns such marriages ( the closest text may be 1 Tim. 3:12 if “husband of one wife” is not a condemnation of allowing divorced men to be deacons but of allowing men with multiple wives to so serve), I do not think my conscience should rule others–unless harm could be proved.

If this sounds strange, I contend that it is the same strong view of liberty of conscience that was held by early Baptists, Quakers and some others. They defended the liberty of conscience of people with whom they disagreed–and sometimes disliked very strongly. Thus, Thomas Helwys, pastor of the first Baptist congregation on English soil wrote in 1615 to defend Catholics from persecution by King James I (yes, that King James). He didn’t like Catholics. Like most Protestants of his day, he considered them idol worshippers rather than true Christians and called them by the slur-word “papists.” But, he told King James I that he had no right to rule over Catholic consciences than he did over “ours,” “and that is none at all!” The King is a mortal man and not God, said Helwys, and therefore hath no authority over the conscience.

Likewise Roger Williams, briefly a Baptist and then a Seeker, defended the liberty of conscience of Catholics, Jews, Turks (a slur-word meaning Muslims), and pagans (probably referring to the Native Americans). He couldn’t stand Quakers whom he considered both irrational and very unbiblical, but he defended their religious liberty and Rhode Island was a safe haven for Quakers. Did Williams not think the gospel should be defended? Only using spiritual weapons, he replied. (This may be why the Roger who commented on part 1 thinks that spiritual warfare is germane to this topic.) So, he constantly challenged Quakers to public debate–he attempted to persuade them that they were wrong. (If polygamy were practiced in this country and I could not find a real public harm to justify seeking its outlawry, I would still work to persuade those who practiced it to give the practice up.)

The Virginian Baptist John Leland, who worked hard to get both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to push for a Bill of Rights that included religious liberty, even defended the rights of witches. Make no mistake. In the 18th C. of Leland, no one thought of “Wiccans” as weird but harmless new agers with a minority religion. They were believed to be in league with the powers of darkness and able to inflict real harm through spells on their neighbors. Leland believed that if any so-called witch could be found guilty of harm to neighbors, they should be punished for that–but not for their non-Christian beliefs.

Roger Williams argued the case by dividing the Ten Commandments into two sections or tables. Table 1 consisted of duties to God. The government was NEVER to be in charge of enforcing anyone’s idea of what duties were owed God–including belief in one God, many gods, or no god. That was between an individual and her conscience–even God would only use persuasion and not coercion. But the 2nd table of the Law, with duties owed between humans, could be enforced. (Yes, even laws against adultery could be theoretically enforceable, but the wisdom of doing so would lessen as the community or nation became even more pluralistic.)

End, pt. 2 because of length. More to come.


June 30, 2006 - Posted by | religious liberty


  1. >Did Williams not think the gospel should be defended? Only using spiritual weapons, he replied. (This may be why the Roger who commented on part 1 thinks that spiritual warfare is germane to this topic.)

    I brought it up because you mentioned ‘the demonization of Islam’ in a way that made me think that you didn’t understand why anyone would reference Islam in that way. It’s used in a spiritual context and not a material one – in the same way that Jesus referenced Peter in Matthew 16:23.

    I don’t want to distract in this discussion but spiritual warfare is a reality of living in the world – it’s always there and it’s always a factor.

    Comment by Roger | June 30, 2006

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