Liberty of Conscience: Part 3 in a series based on the entry for Liberalism in the Dicionary of the History of Ideas.

In the introductory diary, I made a series of big points. In Part 2, I made just one big point: that liberalism developed as a pragmatic response to the context of the modern state.  

In this diary, the point is similar: that liberty of conscience--starting with and centered on religious belief--emerged as a liberal value in response to historical developments. The separation of church and state had its origins in the way in which state and religious power were separate long before there was anything like liberalism in the West. The importance of religious faith was used to justify persecution much more intensely before it came to justify toleration. And tolerance emerged first as a matter of pragmatic necessity, only later becoming a positive value.

Text and comments below the fold...

2. Liberty of Conscience.

The Middle Ages: Where things started-salvation depends on correct doctrine, which comes from one true church.

In Europe in the Middle Ages two ideas were widely accepted: that salvation, or union with God in an afterlife, depends not just on leading a good life, but on holding certain beliefs about God and his relations to man; and that there is a church, a community of the faithful, having sole authority from God to teach the beliefs (and administer the sacraments) necessary to salvation. To most people in medieval Europe, these two ideas may have meant very little, for most people were illiterate and incapable of understanding them. No doubt, to most people everywhere, religion has been more a matter of ritual than of doctrine. But these ideas were important to persons in authority, both clerical and lay.

The Reformation Begins: Correct doctrine from conflicting churches.

At the Reformation the first of these ideas-that salvation depends on holding certain beliefs- was not challenged, and the second was challenged only up to a point. Luther rejected the authority of the pope and of other ecclesiastical superiors who disagreed with him; and he taught that every Christian must interpret for himself the Holy Scriptures containing the truths necessary to salvation. Yet he proved in the end unwilling to admit that avowed Christians whose interpretations of the Scriptures differed widely from his own should be allowed to propagate their beliefs. It is arguable that he wanted them silenced only because he thought their doctrines dangerous to the social order and not because they had misinterpreted Holy Scripture. But the Lutherans after him certainly wanted some of their opponents silenced on the ground that their doctrines were false and not merely dangerous.

So too did the Calvinists. What is more, the idea of a true church with sole authority to teach a faith necessary to salvation long remained widely attractive to Protestants, even though their beliefs about how the faithful should be organized were sometimes incompatible with this idea. So there were soon, over large parts of Western Europe, several organized bodies of Christians, each claiming, if not a monopoly of the truth, a privileged status in declaring it and in deciding what false beliefs were intolerable. Most of them were intolerant, though some less so than others; and the more tolerant were so often from motives of prudence, being more liable to persecution by others than able to persecute them.

The Reformation Continues: Tolerance grows, first as expedient, then as just.

Nevertheless, with time, belief in toleration grew stronger. In the wake of a growing belief that toleration is expedient, there grew another-that it is just. Yet toleration was mostly from motives of expediency until quite recent times. Governments learned by experience that they were more likely to provoke disorder by trying to establish uniformity of religious belief by force than by allowing diversity. Religious leaders learned that the number of the faithful was as likely to grow if they gave up being persecutors where they were strong in return for not being persecuted where they were weak.

The long period of religious conflict that started with Luther's defiance of the papacy had two lasting effects. It strengthened and spread more widely the belief that "faith" is important, and it made people keener to associate for the defense and propagation of beliefs that they cared deeply about. These beliefs were at first mostly religious, but they came in time to be much more than merely religious, or ceased altogether to be so.

Beliefs about how men should live and society be organized had long been associated with beliefs about God and his purposes for man. As the association between these two kinds of belief weakened and for many people (agnostics and atheists) was quite severed, beliefs about man, morals, and society still kept something of the "sacred" character of religious beliefs. The idea survived that nothing matters more about a man than his faith, than the beliefs he cares deeply about because they form or justify his aspirations or his way of life.

The idea that faith is important can be used to justify either persecution and indoctrination or toleration and freedom of speech. It was used at first much more for the first purpose than the second, and in our day is still used widely for both purposes. In the West it is now more often used for the second purpose. And yet, though it was used for this second, this "liberal," purpose later than for the first, there has been no steady movement away from the first use to the second.

The emergence of tolerance was not unique, but was more intense than elsewhere, following bloody conflicts.

Tolerance and freedom of speech are not, of course, peculiarly modern any more than are persecution and indoctrination. There was a great deal of tolerance and of this freedom, in some places at some times, in the ancient world. But it is in the modern age and in the West, in a part of the world where persecution and indoctrination were for a long time peculiarly fierce and thorough, with bitter conflicts between rival faiths, that tolerance and freedom of speech are most highly prized.

This is not to suggest that periods of persecution and indoctrination are always followed by periods of toleration and freedom of speech; but to suggest only that, in a part of the world where peculiar importance was attached to faith, after a long period of conflict between persecuting and proselytizing churches and sects, none of which gained complete ascendency, tolerance and freedom of speech came to be more highly valued than they had ever been anywhere before. They were not merely practiced, as they had been in other places and other times; they were put forward as principles that ought to be practiced as far as possible.

The Spread Outward From Religious Beliefs

In the West until the eighteenth century, persecutors and advocates of toleration were concerned mostly with religious beliefs, and have since that time turned their attention more to social and moral doctrines. Or, rather, the beliefs that now concern them are less often religious, as well as social and moral, than they used to be; for religious beliefs that have attracted persecution have nearly always been closely connected with social and moral doctrines.

So, too, since the eighteenth century, the impulse to form associations to maintain and propagate religious beliefs and practices has broadened into a readiness to form them to promote and protect any beliefs and practices important to those who share them. The right to associate for such purposes has been widely asserted and recognized as one of the most precious of all.

Separation of Church and State: Pre-Liberal Roots in the West

In the West in the Middle Ages it was the church rather than the state that was responsible for defending as well as teaching the true faith, the temporal magistrate acting rather as an auxiliary to punish persons condemned by priests. Hence an idea more widely accepted in the West than in other parts of Christendom, that matters of faith are beyond the jurisdiction of the state, that its business is to prevent people from acting harmfully rather than to ensure that they hold true beliefs.

Defense of the church against the state, even when it has not been defense of religious freedom, has nevertheless been, or appeared to be, a defense of faith against the state or the Temporal Power, against organized force. For the organ of coercion has been the state or the Temporal Power and not the church, even when that Power has acted in defense of the church or to promote its aims. Hence in the West two important social functions, organized coercion and organized indoctrination, have long been separate or more nearly separate than elsewhere.

In short, this section shows that in one of the core concerns of liberalism-that of First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech and association-it was historical social forces, and the failure of other alternatives that lead to the emergence of liberalisms commitment to tolerance and individual liberty.  As we will see in later section, this became rationalized in terms of systematic arguments, but this came after the fact. People first realized the need for tolerance, and then began working out how to justify it.  

This underscores the point that liberalism is a pragmatic philosophy, that its development is strikingly similar to that of science, in which experimental results are then rationalized afterwards by theory. We often hear liberal ideas expressed as fully-formed principles, which often seem at odds with direct experience. This makes it seem as if liberalism is an elite, theoretical, out-of-touch ideology.  

Religious tolerance seems like a hard sell if you are absolutely sure that you are right, and anyone who disagrees with you is going to Hell.  But factor in the horrendous massacres of Europe's religious wars and you begin to understand that liberalism is very grounded in experience and pragmatism. It's precisely because its path has been so wise that we have little idea what horrors the "common sense" alternative holds.  The same is equally true of the welfare state developed in response to the catastrophic failure of laissez-faire capitalism in the Great Depression.

Originally posted to Paul Rosenberg on Wed Feb 09, 2005 at 10:30 AM PST.

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