Is Religious Freedom A Central Principle Of Christianity?

Yesterday, I commented on part of this Roy Moore quote:

as late as 1931, the Supreme Court in United States v. Macintosh declared, “We are a Christian people … according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God.” Thus, the Supreme Court itself recognized that God is the source of religious freedom, not man – a central principle of the Christian faith.

I focused on his claims about the Scotus quote. Then I started thinking about the claim about God. I do not know what God thinks about religious freedom, but I’m not so sure you can describe religious freedom as “a central principle of the Christian faith.” Or at least I do not think the historical record demands that contention.

Consider John Calvin’s view on the purposes of civil government:

But we shall have a fitter opportunity of speaking of the use of civil government. All we wish to be understood at present is, that it is perfect barbarism to think of exterminating it, its use among men being not less than that of bread and water, light and air, while its dignity is much more excellent. Its object is not merely, like those things, to enable men to breathe, eat, drink, and be warmed, (though it certainly includes all these, while it enables them to live together;) this, I say, is not its only object, but it is that no idolatry, no blasphemy against the name of God, no calumnies against his truth, nor other offences to religion, break out and be disseminated among the people; that the public quiet be not disturbed, that every man’s property be kept secure, that men may carry on innocent commerce with each other, that honesty and modesty be cultivated; in short, that a public form of religion may exist among Christians, and humanity among men.

Let no one be surprised that I now attribute the task of constituting religion aright to human polity, though I seem above to have placed it beyond the will of man, since I no more than formerly allow men at pleasure to enact laws concerning religion and the worship of God, when I approve of civil order which is directed to this end, viz., to prevent the true religion, which is contained in the law of God, from being with impunity openly violated and polluted by public blasphemy.

In other words, civil government cannot mandate that a person attend church, but it can burn at the stake a person who denies the trinity. That would be a pretty tortured definition of liberty, if it were so to be called.

I think most would agree that Calvin’s attitude was typical of churchmen – Catholic and Protestant (but not Anabaptists) – during the reformation. These attitudes, I think, more than justify an observer in concluding that Christianity had no place for religious liberty.

And what of Colonial America? How about John Winthrop’s famous sermon:

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations, the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword throughout the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord in His last farewell to Israel, V 30., Beloved there is now set before us life and good, death and evil, in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinance, and His laws, and the articles of our covenant with Him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God my bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.

Did that lead to religious liberty in colonial Massachusetts? Ask Roger Williams. Or consider what happened to women accused of having strange religious ideas. The result was more like a theocracy.

Different views existed. William Penn, for instance. But those folks were considered freaks. By and large the views were similar to Calvin. Again, the objective observer would probably not conclude that religious liberty is a central tenant of Christianity.

Obviously, I am no historian. The lessons I have been taught, however, lead me to question Moore’s assertions. God may indeed think highly of religious liberty. But I think the actions and words of his followers might cause an objective observer to wonder.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Establishment Clause, God and government, Religion

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