There’s a disturbing article in Sojourners emblematic of current fashions against religious freedom whose headline is “Rejecting the Religious Liberty of Slaveholder Religion.” It likens Christians who dissent from LGBTQ orthodoxy to slaveholders and segregationists of old, alleging they also hid behind the cloak of religious freedom.
This argument is absurdly unhistorical. Many defenders of slavery and segregation exploited religious arguments but they did not stand behind religious liberty. Just the opposite, as imposition of slavery and segregation often entailed assaulting religious liberty. Anti-slavery religious groups were not free to propagate their perspective in much of the slave South. Methodist founding Bishop Francis Asbury was anti-slavery but when in the South sometimes was greeted by mobs, and he went silent when he realized Methodism would lose access to the South if persistently anti-slavery. Other church groups did likewise. Had their religious and speech freedom been protected, perhaps slavery could have been challenged and eventually abolished without civil war.
Slavery assaulted the humanity of the slaves but also abridged the rights of non slaves. Public mails and printing presses sometimes were destroyed if propagating anti-slavery views. Anti-slavery groups often could not publicly meet or organize. Political candidates who were anti slavery could not get on the ballot, and if they did, votes for them were not counted. These attacks on constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and religion would continue through Reconstruction and segregation.
To the extent religious freedom offered shelter it was to the black church, which organized and thrived. Blacks were effectively denied other outlets in civil society but their churches were avenues of spiritual, cultural and ultimately political vitality. The Civil Rights Movement largely emerged from the black church. Without the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom, Southern blacks, so often denied rights of assembly and speech, likely would have lost their liberty to practice their faith according to their own dictates. Thanks to at least this religious freedom, they eventually gained the other rights they were owed by the Constitution.
Religious freedom like all free speech and rights of conscience is central to free and lawful societies. Any state that can subvert or suppress religion can steal all other individual rights essential to human dignity. These protections are especially essential to protect minority and unpopular perspectives from the tyranny and intolerance of arrogant majorities. A free and just society must always retain its confidence to protect dissent, even when despised and stigmatized, indeed above all then. To do otherwise is potentially to lose freedom and ability for independent and creative thought and action.
Recently I encountered a wonderful letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809 to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at New London, Connecticut. His famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut in which he spoke of a “wall” separating church and state is commonly quoted, but his missive to the Methodists has been largely forgotten, sadly. His words here are important:
No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprizes of the civil authority. It has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the consciences of men either attainable, or applicable to any desirable purpose. To me, no information could be more welcome than that the minutes of the several religious societies should prove, of late, larger additions than have been usual, to their several associations. And I trust that the whole course of my life has proved me a sincere friend to religious, as well as civil liberty.
To Jefferson, religious liberty was intrinsically linked to all other civil liberties. Note that Jefferson was privately Unitarian and not a fan of the new evangelical movements like the Methodists and Baptists. Yet he saw their liberty as imperative to the republic.
Interestingly, the phrase “religious liberty” originated with the early church father Tertullian in the year 197 AD, which later influenced Lactantius, counselor to Emperor Constantine, whose Edict of Milan granted religious toleration. In his own copy of Tertulian’s work, Jefferson underlined this phrase, which he used in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, as recounted in Robert Wilken’s 2014 book, The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom. Conscience rights are inherently a biblical concept rooted in an understanding of each person created in God’s image with sacred rights to think and speak according to conscience without fear of compulsion by society or state.
Several Christian small business owners have been potentially ruined for their refusal to participate in gay rites. Their appeals to liberty of religion and conscience, in defiance of elite opinion, have been mocked, including by this Sojourners writer who is a liberal Christian. All who join in this mockery and appeal for coercion should consider the potential day when their own beliefs maybe unpopular and threatened. Who and what will protect them?