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The Argument for Religious Freedom: Part 4 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: that liberalism developed as a pragmatic response to the context of the modern state.  

In Part 3, a similar point: that liberty of conscience--starting with and centered on religious belief--emerged as a liberal value in response to historical developments.

Here we look more at the detailed working out of what has already been described more broadly-that tolerance developed first as pragmatic necessity, then as a positive principle.

On close inspection, the positive principle of tolerance was there from the beginning of the Reformation, but it was highly ambiguous, and was sharply contradicted in practice. It was only after the pragmatic necessity was realized that the positive principle firmly took root.


1. The Argument for Religious Freedom.

It is often said that the modern idea of freedom first appeared, or at least first became formidable, in the Reformation. The first of its champions to make a mark in the world was Luther, who asserted the "priesthood of all believers," and who said that "God desires to be alone in our consciences, and desires that His word alone should prevail."

Certainly, implicit in some of Luther's utterances is the principle that the believer is responsible to God alone for his religious beliefs. Long before Luther, Socrates had felt an inner compulsion to teach what he believed was the truth, and had held fast to his truth when accused of corrupting the youth of Athens. But he had not proclaimed the right of anyone who felt as he did to act as he had done. His accusers, in any case, were not concerned to forbid the teaching of error, nor yet to uphold true beliefs "necessary to salvation," but to maintain outward respect for conventional beliefs and manners. They no more saw themselves as champions of a true faith than Socrates saw himself as a martyr for liberty of conscience.

And long before the Reformation, there were Christians who said that the believer must be allowed to follow God's Word without hindrance from the temporal magistrates, and there were accusations of heresy made against some priests by others (even subordinates in the hierarchy) and by laymen. Defiance of the church's authority in matters of faith did not begin with the Reformation. Yet Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was new and formidable. Though there were traces of it before his time, it was his version of it that excited and disturbed Christendom in the West.

(1) Luther's "preisthood of all believers, though it had precursors, signaled a new departure, radically recentering religious authority within the individual consceince.

It is arguable that Luther's hold on his own doctrine was not altogether firm, and that he failed to see its full implications. In practice, he sometimes denied to others the right to publish religious beliefs widely different from his own, and it is far from certain that he did so only because he thought the beliefs dangerous to the social order and not because he thought them false and abhorrent to God.

In any case, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers is ambiguous. It invites the question: Who is to be reckoned a believer? Is anyone a believer who says that Holy Scripture is the Word of God, no matter how he interprets it? In that case, a man might be a Christian though his beliefs differed more from those of other Christians than from the beliefs of Mohammed. And if outrageous or absurd interpretations are condemned as insincere, and the believer's claim to be recognized and tolerated as such is rejected on that account, are not those who reject it saying that, after all, he is answerable to his fellow men for his beliefs, and not to God alone?

Luther never put to himself such a question as this; he merely took it for granted that there are limits to what professed "believers" can be allowed to read into the Scriptures. In practice he was no more tolerant than Erasmus or than several other great writers of the age who never broke away from the old church.

(2) Luther's hold on his own principle was ambiguous and contradicted by his own practice. In a way, this was inevitable. The principle, though a foundation of individualism, is a social principle, nonetheless-this is how we ought to live together. A priesthood, after all, is a form of fellowship, not merely a collection of isolated individuals. It requires a society that has embraced and practiced such precepts to hold itself accountable-even its leaders who don't always live up to their ideals. This is another reason why society matters, and why liberalism is fundamentally a social philosophy: individual liberty can only be preserved and flourish where it is firmly established as a social value.

(3) The extreme "relativism" of today-even to the point of post-modernist interpretations-was present at the beginning with Luther, though of course not realized. This is not some later invention, as conservatives (including conservative Lutherans, naturally) would like to claim.  The invention was Luther's, even if it was inadvertant. Those who came later brought profound changes, to be sure, but they did this based on working out implications that were already there from the beginning.

Perhaps the finest plea for toleration made in the sixteenth century is Castellion's De haereticis, an sint persequendi, published in 1554. Belief, to be acceptable to God, must be sincere, which it cannot be, if it is forced. God is just, and therefore does not make it a condition of salvation that men should hold uncertain beliefs long disputed among Christians. Only beliefs that Christians have always accepted can be necessary to salvation; and to hold otherwise is to doubt the goodness of God.

To punish men for beliefs they dare to avow is to risk punishing the sincere and to allow hypocrites to go unpunished. Castellion's arguments were directed at Calvin, who only a few months earlier had had Servetus burned to death as a heretic. Castellion's plea was not only for a wide toleration; he condemned extreme measures against any heretic. He was concerned for the quality of faith, for the spiritual condition of the believer. Yet he did not advocate full liberty of conscience; he did not put it forward as a principle that anyone may hold and publish any religious beliefs, and may worship God as he pleases, provided he does not propagate beliefs and indulge in practices that endanger the peace and the secure enjoyment of rights.

(4) Castellion may be regarded as possibly the first authentic modern religious liberal. This is because
Castellion's defense of tolerance was supported by explicitly liberal ideas.  This is true despite the fact that he did not advocate full liberty of conscience.  He had a distinctively liberal attitude, even if he did not follow it all the way. Thus, it is fair to say that Luther's idea give birth to a liberal view, but Castellion embodies a liberal view-though not fully realized..

There are three liberal arguments Castellion advances, which we can amplify as follows:

(5) God is merciful, and nurturant. He does not punish men for not meeting impossible standards.  To doubt this-to demand orthodoxy-is to doubt the goodness of God. Thus, one could argue, it is the strident orthodox believer who commits clear heresy, when he accuses an unorthodox believer of the same.  It's the old mote-beam thing.

(6) We can't substitute ourselves for God. Belief must be sincere, to be acceptable to God. But only God can know who is sincere. Human punishment risks punishing the sincere-the righteous-while letting hypocrites go. It is arrogant on our part to believe we know God's will. Separation of church and state is thus rooted in proper humility before God. Bringing them together is based on pride and arrogance. It is the path of Lucifer.

(7) The spriritual condition of the believer is a prime concern. It cannot simply be trumped by claiming "true faith." All that we can do, as mortals, is to try to support one another in our own spiritual quests. We may do this by encouragement, persuasion, even questioning, but not by such coercive means that would interfere with sincere belief.  There is no Strict Parent "right way" that can trump the Nurturant Parent concern for the individuals own spiritual condition.

Next: Two Pragmatice Lessons

This principle was not clearly and vigorously asserted until the end of the seventeenth century. Years of controversy and long and painful experience were needed to bring home to men two lessons: that domestic peace and security do not depend on people having the same, or even broadly similar, religious beliefs; and that persecution is unlikely to bring about uniformity of belief, even though it may silence the heterodox.

(8) Domestic peace and security come from tolerance, not uniformity.

The first lesson disposes those who learn it to accept liberty of conscience on political grounds: let people hold and publish what religious opinions they choose, since the attempt to impose religious uniformity endangers the peace more than does religious diversity.

(9) Persecution doesn't work, anyway.

The second lesson disposes them to accept it on religious and moral grounds: let individuals hold and publish what religious opinions they choose, since forbidding them to do so will not ensure that they accept with sincerity the opinions of those who impose the sanctions.

After many a hard knock for over a hundred years, we're finally ready to get serious about putting Luther and Castellion together, supported by these two pragmatic lessons. The major players are Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle:

The case for liberty of conscience was refined and reduced to essentials by Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle. Spinoza, in the twentieth chapter of his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), asserted man's right to reason freely about everything and said that the sovereign invades this right if he prescribes to his subjects what they must accept as true or reject as false. Bayle, in his Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de JésusChrist, "Contrains-les d'entrer" (1686), argued that coercion in matters of belief encourages hypocrisy and corrupts society by destroying the good faith on which it depends.

We interupt this paragraph to say, "Here comes the real kicker":

And it is absurd, as some people do, to condemn persecution when it is harsh and approve it when it is mild. Since faith is important, heresy, if it is a crime, must be a serious one and ought to be severely punished; and if it is not a crime, it ought not to be punished at all. The conscience that errs has rights as much entitled to respect as the conscience that possesses the truth. Even atheists should be tolerated; and if Catholics should not be, it is not on account of their faith, but because they are intolerant. For the doctrine that heretics should be persecuted is not religious but political; and it is pernicious because it makes for disorder and is destructive of good morals.


Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), shorter than Bayle's Commentary and more popular and less abstract than Spinoza's argument in the Tractatus, is the classical apology for liberty of conscience. Though it does not, any more than does Bayle's Commentary, put forward new ideas, it is clear and vigorous. Coming towards the end of a long period of religious wars and persecutions, it brings together into a coherent and compelling whole the most solid arguments for religious liberty. It is an act of completion, the last best word of its age for a kind of freedom that men had learned, slowly and painfully, to recognize and to value.

This is very important!  Locke is a monster figure [in a good way] in the history of liberalism. This is partially justified, merely because of how often, how widely and how fundamentally he is cited.  However, it is a mistake to fetishize him, and particularly to ignore the fact that in matters of religion-one of his two main contributions (the other being social contract theory)-he is not an originator, but a synthesizer and summarizer. You will find an awful lot of Locke-worship among libertarians. Probably worth a whole book in itself. But the most significant thing to say here is that Locke's views are the result of a long social and historical process. They did not spring from his brow in a virgin birth.  Individualism is, once again, an outgrowth of a specific social milieu.

The proper business of civil government, according to Locke, is to protect and promote men's interests. Though everyone has the right to try to persuade others to hold beliefs which he thinks are true and important, nobody has the right to use force to that end. The civil magistrate has no authority from either God or man to require anyone to profess or refrain from professing a belief on the ground that it is true or false, necessary to salvation or incompatible with it. It is not for him to dispute with his subjects or to persuade them to a particular religion. Even if he could force them to adhere to it, he would not thereby save their souls, for salvation depends on a free adherence to what is true.

A pretty darn robust wall of separation, don'tcha think?

A church is no more than an association of men who come together to worship God in the manner they think acceptable to him, and no church can claim authority from God to be the only teacher of the true faith. Like any other voluntary association it may make rules for its members, may admonish and exhort them, and may expel them for disobeying the rules. But it may not deprive them of their civil rights, or of any rights other than those they acquire by joining it, nor may it call upon the civil power to do so.

No belief is to be suppressed merely because it is heretical, nor any practice merely because it is offensive to God. No doubt, what is offensive to God is sinful, but what is sinful is not punishable by man. No man deserves punishment at the hands of other men, unless he has offended some man, unless he has invaded his rights. Locke, in this Letter, seems at times to come close to saying what J. S. Mill was to say long afterwards: that men are answerable to civil authority only for their harmful and not their immoral actions. Yet he does not say it outright, nor even clearly imply it.

This ambiguity is also important to note. This is something that libertarians, with their ahistorical presentism, are particularly prone to miss. But Locke still took for granted, to a degree unclear in his writings, the police powers of the state.  (This has nothing to do with Hill Street Blue, it's the older, broader meaning of the word, to police: to regulate.) It is police powers that libertarians absolutely deny-except, for some inexplicable reason, to enforce contracts.  

Over time, liberals have significantly shifted their background assumptions about how far police powers may extend, and why. They have never denied all police powers, but they have often focused their attention on the dangers that police powers bring. Locke was a prime example of this.

The text itself delves into this, though without the specific warnings against libertarian misreading:

What he does say is that all beliefs are to be tolerated "unless they are contrary to human society" or to moral rules "necessary to the preservation of civil society." This is not a clear saying. What is to be reckoned contrary to human society or necessary to the preservation of civil society? Since Locke wrote his Letter, there have been many attempts to answer this question or others like it. Locke held that there are rights that all men have, and we can perhaps ascribe to him the belief that anything is to be reckoned contrary to human society if it prevents the exercise of these rights, either directly or by subverting institutions on which their exercise depends. It is actions, therefore, rather than beliefs, that are directly contrary to human society.

Here's the twist:

But actions are inspired by beliefs. Are people to be punished for expressing and publishing beliefs that inspire harmful actions? Or is it enough that such beliefs should be combated by argument, and their attractive power diminished by education?

And here's another blow at the simplistic libertarian holiness-of-contracts view, on the way to making a deeper point: Liberals have always been concerned with the issue of preserving social order, they have always wrestled with the threat of undermining it. What they have not done-which social conservatives (and todays communitarians, too) almost always do-is to take this concept of social order and mythologize it, absolutize it and freeze it in past formulations.  

Hence, it's perfectly consistent with centuries of liberal thought for liberals to argue in support of gay marriage precisely because it preserves social order, albeit in a form that is not, presently, regarded as tradtional. </stack of digressions>

Now, where was I?  Oh yes: Another blow at the simplistic libertarian holiness-of-contracts view, yada-yada-yada:

Locke speaks of moral rules necessary to the preservation of society. Presumably, that promises be kept is such a rule. Yet all societies distinguish between enforceable promises (contracts) and promises that are not enforceable. Nor is the keeping of promises that are not enforceable any less necessary to the preservation of civil society than the keeping of the others. In all societies there are rules, supported only by "moral sanctions," no less necessary to preserving the social order than rules the breach of which is a punishable offence. If the breaker of these rules is not liable to punishment, should the man be so who teaches that they need not be kept-or not in all circumstances?

Locke's letter closes one stage in the long debate on freedom of speech and association, and opens another. It puts forward, simply and persuasively, a number of important principles but goes only a little way in considering how they should be applied.

 See, nothing new here. We got our principles we can all agree on, and fight like the dickens over how to apply them. And we delude ourselves that some dead white dude 300 years ago had all the answers, if only we'd just go back to what he said.

What he said: "Well, maybe."

And that's the liberal way. Keep the conversation going....

Originally posted to Paul Rosenberg on Sun Feb 13, 2005 at 10:10 AM PST.

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