Here I Stand: Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries Welcome Keynote

Posted By on August 13, 2019

Good morning and welcome. I’m Michael
Kessler, managing director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and
World Affairs, and a faculty member in the government department and the law
center. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you on behalf of Georgetown and the
Berkley Center to today’s conversation called Here I Stand: Conscience,
Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries. The work of the Berkley
Center, amidst the larger scholarly work of Georgetown University, is to explore
the role of religion within world affairs in both theoretical and
practical terms. The now 500-year and one-day-old Reformation is one hotly,
perhaps one of the most hotly contested, examples of the impact, for better or
worse depending on your view, of religious piety and practice in world
affairs and political order. Luther’s own legacy is open to much debate, from the
hagiography of some of the biographies to the laying at his feet the blame for
all the deficiencies of modernity. Take your pick among the current work on
those sides. My own interest in theological ethics and political
theology bear this out as Luther staked out theological claims about the
inherent limits of the power of the political state and the centrality of
subjective conscience, especially in his early benchmark letter on temporal
authority, while ambiguously making political claims later in his life and
setting off a process in which his immediate and successive followers acted
in ways that are even diametrically opposed to what he laid out in these
early works. There is much to sort through in the next 500 years. Legacies
matter and part of Luther’s legacy is his impact on later liberal political
liberalism, which we in the U.S. inherited in some forms. One beacon of
Luther’s positive influence, on my account, is his insistence on the
inviability of conscience and subjective intentionality, which is seen in our own
foundational notions of conscience. For instance, in a letter James Madison sent
to Frances L Schaefer dated December 3, 1821, Madison commented on Schaeffer’s
address given during the ceremony for laying a cornerstone at St. Matthew’s
Church in New York. And I quote from Madison, “Your address illustrates the
excellence of a system which by a due distinction, to which the genius and
courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to
God best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United
States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened
minds of well-meaning Christians as well as in the corrupt arts of persecuting
usurpers that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil
polity neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most
friendly to practical religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.” While this framework seems
straightforward, we, especially the diverse people in this audience, know the
historical and current struggles over how to interpret and apply this quote
‘mutual independence’ and quote ‘due distinction’ in real lives, in real time.
Our event today continues this interpretive work and the struggle for
the meaning and scope of human dignity, conscience, and freedom within and
sometimes beyond political and legal orders. Our panelists today are
distinguished thinkers who take up these themes and I welcome them today
on behalf of Georgetown and the Berkley Center. Now I would like to turn it over
to Tom Farr who is the director of the Religious Freedom Research Project and a
faculty colleague in the Berkley Center, where he is a senior fellow. I will be
the person to make the note to please turn off cell phones, noise making
devices, and other things that might disrupt your neighbors from
participating today. Thank you, Tom. Thank you, I was delayed by turning off
my cell phone. Let me add my welcome to that of Michael to all of you for what
promises to be very important but a continuation of a long-standing
tradition of discussions and controversies and debates on the meaning
and nature of religious freedom. I’m Tom Farr, director of the
Religious Freedom Research Project here at the Berkley Center. And those of you
who are familiar with our work know that today’s conference continues a long
tradition here at Georgetown, seven years to be precise. Not 500, but it’s still a
long period in my own life. Seven years of public symposia, lively conversations,
and debates concerning the meaning and value of religious freedom. Our strategic
partner at the Religious Freedom Research Project is Baylor University’s
Institute for Studies of Religion, which will be represented today if it’s not
already by professor Byron Johnson. I know he’s here. He’s the director of the
Institute for Studies of Religion, who’s traveled here today from Texas for this
important conference. So as Michael said, today we gather to commemorate the
Reformation. We’re actually here in effect to commemorate that, but also a
contemporary event connected to it, and that is the publication of a two-volume
work of our scholars entitled “Christianity and Freedom” edited by Tim
Shah and Alan Hertzke, both of whom you’ll hear from later today. The two volumes, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary
Perspectives” respectively, are part of the Cambridge Studies in Law and
Christianity, and were published by Cambridge University Press.
They consist of historical and contemporary essays by leading scholars,
many of whom are with us today, on the contributions of Christians and
Christian ideas to the concept and practice of freedom. The volumes are part
of a longer project, which Tim will describe a bit more fully in a moment.
They reflect our attempt to understand more fully the Christian contributions
to freedom, including both the noble and, if you will, the not so noble. Before I
turn the podium over to Tim Shah, let me say a word if I might about the
Religious Freedom Research Project. Our goal has been these years and continues
to be that of building knowledge about religious freedom through research and
scholarship. We fund scholars who publish books and articles, as do we.
For example, we published at the Berkley Center five source books on religious
freedom from the five major world traditions. We’ve written and held
conferences about the worldwide crisis and religious persecution and how it is
harming societies, as well as religious minorities of all groups, including
Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. We hold public lectures and do media
appearances. We train diplomats and other American officials about the meaning and
value of religious freedom. And if you don’t think they need training, you’re
probably in the wrong place today. We testify before Congress and other
legislative bodies abroad. But today we gather to converse, debate, and examine
religious freedom within the various Christian traditions, and Michael has
already given you a little flavor for some of the interesting aspects of that debate. I wouldn’t lay
all of modern society’s ills on Martin Luther, just most of them, speaking as a Catholic. We’re going to have in effect an intra-Christian
conversation about the roots of not only the modern understanding of religious
freedom, but modern liberal democracy as well. So let’s get to it. I’m going to ask
my colleague Tim Shah to come to the stage. Tim is Director for International
Research of the Religious Freedom Research Project. He’s research professor of government at Baylor University’s Institute for
Studies of Religion. He’s also senior adviser and director of the South and
Southeast Asia Action Team with the Religious Freedom
Institute, which is a separate nonprofit that he and I and others have recently
begun. Tim previously served as associate director of the Berkley Center’s
Religious Freedom Project and associate professor of the practice of religion
and global politics at Georgetown’s Government Department. He is the author
of “Even if There is No God:
Hugo Grotius and the Secular Foundations of Modern Political
Liberalism,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
And with Monica Duffy Toft and Dan Philpott, who’s with us today, the highly
acclaimed, “God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.” Tim, join us
on the stage. Thank you very much Tom. A good morning to all of you. Let me assure you that I’m the last of the warm-up acts before the great Robert Wilken. Only
one more warm-up act before we hear from the great Robert Wilken, and we’re all
looking forward to hearing from him. Good morning to all of you. Thank you for
being here so early after whatever form your late night Halloween revelry may
have taken last night. Or maybe you were up late celebrating the 500th
anniversary of the Reformation, but in any case you’re here this morning, so
thank you all very, very much. And it really is a delight to have you here. I
realized that it may be a bit odd, I think, in the minds of many of you, that
we’re having a commemoration of the Protestant Reformation here at
Georgetown University, a respectable Catholic university. Isn’t that a bit
like celebrating the Fourth of July at Buckingham Palace? [Laughter] Or celebrating Milton
Friedman’s birthday in the Kremlin? Well, let me explain a bit, just to set the stage for our conversation. While the publishing of the 95 Theses in
October 1517 was something of a prelude, the real launch of the Reformation, as
historians know, was probably not until 1521, when Martin Luther declared
famously his great “Here I Stand.” “Here I Stand,” said Luther. “I can do no other. I am
bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word
of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor
rightful to go against conscience.” If these words are roughly what Luther said,
and we have to concede to historians that we don’t know whether they’re
exactly what he said, but if they are roughly what he said, then Luther truly
took a remarkable, stirring, lonely stand on the ground of conscience. Conscience
not as self authorizing, but conscience as an indispensable path to the truth. To
the truth, in this case, about the word of God. And because the path to the truth
had to pass through his conscience, Martin Luther could not permit any human
authority, whether ecclesiastical or temporal, to coerce his conscience. Now
the standard, conventional, fabled narrative is that in taking this stand
on the ground of conscience, Luther was issuing a radical new declaration of
intellectual independence. A declaration that would not only deconstruct medieval
Christendom, but also construct the modern world. Everyone from Hegel to
Talal Asad to traditionalist Catholic historians to many Protestant thinkers
have all suggested that Luther’s stand on conscience was a revolutionary turn.
It was, in their view, a turn that reconstructed Western religion into a
matter of interior, voluntary, individual belief, and it reconstructed the very
human being as a radically independent individual and an independent self. Now there is no question, of course, that revolutionary consequences did
ultimately flow from Luther’s revolutionary stand. And
there’s no question that Luther would eventually put his stand of conscience
to revolutionary uses. But the proposition that we’re going to explore
today, and the proposition that we explore in the volumes that Tom
mentioned, “Christianity and Freedom,” is, I think, important now for me to articulate.
I should say by the way that our volumes, “Christianity and Freedom,” are now
available for sale in the back of the room, so please get your copy. In
honor of the Reformation, they’re only 500 dollars, so it’s a real bargain from
Cambridge University Press. [Laughter] Actually they were 500 dollars, but
they’re no longer 500 dollars and they’re quite reasonable. When speaking
of the the volumes and purchasing the volumes I just got word from the Pope
who was present at our launch of this project in December 2013 that he
will actually grant anyone who purchases the books — you have to
pay for the books first — he will grant a papal
indulgence. [Laughter] So he thought that would be an appropriate way to honor the
anniversary of the Reformation. So really you should go and buy these. Buy
these books. It’s the proposition of the books, it’s the proposition to be discussed and debated today in our conference that the
standard fabled narrative needs to be challenged. What we want to propose and discuss and debate today is that the one thing that was not new or
unique in Luther’s “Here I Stand” was precisely his stand on the ground of
conscience. We think that Luther’s claimed ground of
conscience became the site of a battleground of course between
individualist innovators and traditionalist defenders of
communitarian integrity and authority. We think that is what happened. But, in a
nutshell, it’s the central claim of our volumes, and it’s what we’re going to discuss today, that the proposition that conscience is sacred ground,
that conscience has sacred duties, that conscience has sacred rights, is
not, and should not be, a battleground between Catholics and Protestants or
between Orthodox and Protestants, between pre-Lutheran traditional Christianity
and post-Lutheran modern Christianity. Instead it is more accurate to see the
proposition that conscience is sacred ground not as a battleground, but as common ground across the Christian tradition. On
this view Luther’s stand of conscience, per se, was not the revolutionary root of
something new — though again Luther did put his stand of conscience to
revolutionary uses. Rather Luther’s stand of conscience was arguably the
intellectual fruit of something very old, very long-standing, very deep in the
Christian tradition. It reflected a high view of the dignity and the self-
determining character of the human person, going back to the church fathers,
including Augustine and Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa and Tertullian, people
you’ll be hearing a lot about today. But reflecting even more deeply and more
anciently, the words of the first chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures, “God
created man in his own image. In the image of God He created him, male and
female He created them.” Today we will discuss and explore and debate all these
ancient roots of the idea that conscience is sacred ground and we will
also discuss the fruits of this radical idea, particularly in a panel that my
dear friend and colleague and co-editor Allen Hertzke will lead this afternoon.
We’ll discuss the fruits of this radical idea, including the contemporary fruits
today that conscience is sacred. And one fruit of this idea is the
steady insistence across the centuries on the idea that religious freedom is
universal, that it applies to all people, not just
Christians but non-Christians. That it is something whose truth is so profound and
so hardwired in human nature that its truth can be understood and
embraced even by people who are not Christian believers, who do not accept
the theological propositions of the Christian faith. Indeed we’ll note today,
remarkably, that numerous Christian writers such as Tertullian and
Lactantius and many others, such as Bartolome de las Casas and Roger
Williams, across the centuries formulated their defenses of freedom of religion
and conscience in terms of what we would today call public reason. Because of
their particular understandings of human nature, reason, and natural law, it is
not just that they thought that they fully believed that religious freedom
was something to which non-Christians as much as Christians were entitled. It was
also that they expected and believed that religious freedom was something
that non-Christians can understand, can embrace, and can endorse even from their own distinct points of view. We think these arguments and ideas have enormous relevance and importance today in a world in which, of course, there remains so many
religious restrictions. And with that my warm-up act is
over, and I’m delighted to introduce the great Robert Louis Wilken. Today is not
only the day after Halloween, the day after Reformation Day. It’s also All Saints Day. And if I may say so Robert Wilken has
been the patron saint of our project on “Christianity and Freedom.” He has become a wonderful friend. He has been,
and was, the inspiration in many ways for the launching of our work on the
historical roots of the idea of religious freedom. Robert Louis Wilken is
the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the
University of Virginia emeritus. He is an elected fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, past president of the American Academy of Religion, the
North American Patristic Society, and the Academy of Catholic Theology. He is today
chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion in Public Life—which is the publisher of “First Things” magazine. I’m not going to
read his entire biography so that you can actually have time to hear from
Robert. I’ll only note two additional items. One is that his most recent book
is called “The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity,”
with Yale University Press, in which Robert covers the first thousand years
of Christian history. He’s also written, I’ll mention one other thing, a beautiful
book called, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of
God.” And I will mention now that he is working on a new book which is under
contract with Yale University Press with the working title, “Liberty in the
Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom,” which, we’re proud to
say, is a project that that, as it were, came out of the work that we did
together for the “Christianity and Freedom” volume. So let me now welcome our patron saint Robert Wilken to the stage. [Applause] Thank you very much Timothy. I know the
exalted language is quite unnecessary. It’s All Saints Day and in the liturgy
for All Saints Day is a passage from the Book of Revelation about the 144,000 who
have suffered through the tribulation and now stand in white robes before the
throne of God, singing praise and honor to the one God. And the talk that I’m
going to give, I’m very pleased that we’re doing it on on All Saints Day,
because the role that the Reformation played in the development of religious
freedom was only possible because of the saints who lived in the 1,500 years
before the Reformation, that’s my basic theme. Now when Timothy asked me to do
this, I said, “Timothy what do you want me to do?” And he said, “Well I want you to
give a summary of your book.” But that is no way to write a
lecture. You need some stories. So I’m going to tell you two stories about the
Reformation that I think will illustrate how the Reformation brought about a
deeper understanding of things that had been present in the Christian tradition
long before the Reformation appeared. Because he wanted me to keep it into 40
minutes and it’s not going to be a long lecture, I’m not going to be able to tell
you the first part of the history that leads up to this,
and a little conclusion at the end. The rhetoric of the reformers of
the sixteenth century called for a renewal of the medieval church.
But what they wrought was not the rebirth of an earlier and purer form of
Christian faith and practice. The Reformation inaugurated a great
transformation in Western civilization with far-reaching consequences for the
relation between religion and public life. In the decades following the public
presentation of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, the
institutional unity and cultural cohesion of Western Christendom was
breaking apart, caught between a vanishing past and an uncertain future.
With the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Elizabethan restoration in England in
1559, and the organization of the Calvinist churches in France in the
1560s, the old world was fading in memory. What began as a theological and
institutional critique of the church gave rise to confessional communities
holding distinctive beliefs and practices that led to the eclipse of
Christendom, a society united by faith, and the emergence of Europe, a culture
defined by geography. The seismic shifts within Western Christendom created
unprecedented social fracturing in communities all over Europe. How were
kings, princes, and city magistrates to deal with religious divisions that ran
down the main street of their communities? The nonconformists were
neighbors, friends, merchants, and craftsmen who had been linked by bonds
of faith and love for place but the spread of reform turned communities
against themselves. In this environment, political leaders, religious thinkers, and
philosophers drew on a common Christian heritage to address conflicts in rapidly
changing societies by knitting the certainties of the past to the
tumultuous present, ancient ideas were refashioned and over the course of
several generations made to fit the new social and religious landscape. In the
sixteenth century, the fault line on religious liberty ran between those who ruled and
those who were ruled, not between Catholics and Protestants. In the
German-speaking cities and territories of the Holy Roman Empire, Lutheran
princes and city leaders raised long-standing institutions and practices
to put in place a new order. In the cities of Switzerland, Calvinists drove
out Catholic clergy, outlawed celebration of the Mass, forcing those who held to
the old ways to submit to the new discipline. In France, where the
Reformation grew from the ground up, Catholic rulers suppressed the Huguenots,
that is the Calvinists who were adherents of the new religion. In the
southern provinces of the low country, Protestants were persecuted by Catholics,
while in Holland and Zealand in the north Calvinists prohibited
Catholics from practicing their faith. In England in mid-century the Catholics
were persecuted by the Reformed Church of England and at the beginning of the
seventeenth century the fledgling Baptists were suppressed or driven into exile by King
James I. Initially, a commendation for religious dissenters was advanced
under the banner of sufferance or toleration. But by the beginning of the
seventeenth century, free exercise of religion began to be considered a
natural right. So here’s my first story. The Reformation first took root in
cities. Well let’s look at one city: Nuremberg in Bavaria in the sixteenth century. Nuremberg had a population of some 25,000 peaceful persons. It was one of
dozens of imperial cities that is a city. It belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, but in
truth was self-sufficient, and free to act on its own, independently of the emperor. The
supreme authority in Nuremberg was the city council, made up of 42 men, many of
whom were members of old patrician families. Nuremberg had an Augustinian
community and Luther was an Augustinian monk. Luther’s writings were carried there by
his Augustinian brothers. And shortly after the 95 Theses were published a
humanist in Nuremberg translated them into German and in October 1518,
Luther actually visited the city on the way to Augsburg to meet with Cardinal
Cajetan. By 1525 the city council had removed Nuremberg from the
jurisdiction of the Bishop of Bamberg and in 1528, Catholic rights were
officially abolished. And so Nuremberg became one of the first cities to
prepare its own church order. That means a legal document setting forth Lutheran
doctrine prescribing uniform liturgical practices for the churches in the city
and the rural community and establishing the office of superintendent to oversee
the clergy. As reforms were being imposed, the city magistrates set about closing
down the monasteries. However, when they came to the Sisters of St. Clare, a community
of religious women with a long history in the city, the women firmly told the
city fathers they had no business interfering in their spiritual life. In
1524 the abbess of the convent, a woman named Caritas Pirckheimer, began to
keep a diary that gives a first-hand account of changes as they were being
imposed on the sisters. She tells a gripping story of intimidation and
harassment by city magistrates and reformed clergy — that means
Lutheran clergy. One of the first actions of the council was to order the sisters to
send away the Franciscan priests who had served the convent and heard
their confessions. On Good Friday 1525, priests were forbidden to say Mass at
the convent, depriving the sisters of the sacrament. To replace the banished
Franciscans, the council installed new clergy sympathetic to the reform. On
one occasion, writes Pirckheimer, this Franciscan nun, “Lutheran women along
with Lutheran pastors and a cantor arranged to sing a German Mass in our
church. We all ran from the choir and did not hear it.” It’s a lively document, I
tell you. The sisters resented that the city council sent evangelical clergy to
preach long sermons to convince them to accept Luther’s teachings; in all they had
to listen to 111 sermons. The magistrates also dispatched
agents to watch that the sisters were present at the sermons and to see
“whether or not they stuffed wool in their ears.” They were forbidden to ring
bells for the hours of prayer and one day men came in to lock the choir room, making
it impossible to gather for prayer. They were ordered to stop wearing their
habits and told to take apart the material, dye it a different color, and sew
new clothing. The aim of these orders was “to destroy our cloister and all spiritual life.” In a poignant
passage she says that the convent had served God for 250 years
and now “we are being enforced to accept the new faith.” Now as dramatic as Pirckheimer’s tale of the destruction of a monastery of women,
what is more telling is how she defends her community again and says
the sisters are being deprived of their spiritual freedom. “We hope,” she writes, “that the honorable City Council will not apply pressure in matters which concern
our conscience and force us to act against our will to confess what
the authorities want us to say,” to which she adds, “We cannot find in our
conscience that we should believe and hold fast to what everyone wants us to
do and abandon the faith and order of the Holy Church. Do not ask us to
accept the faith we do not believe in. Even the Turks do not coerce anyone.
God wishes our consciences to be free. It would be a terrible
pitiful affair if we, in addition to the physical enclosure to which we have
willingly submitted, would be imprisoned in our consciences in which the freedom
of the Gospel is being preached.” Pirckheimer’s appeal to conscience is not
simply a rhetorical ploy; it carries theological heft. She writes, “No one can show us from the Holy Gospel that anyone is to be coerced
or put under pressure.” For her, conscience was not an appeal to private judgment
but the assurance of faith formed by the Scriptures and the Church’s tradition, a
living intelligence that moved her thoughts and her actions. “We cannot do
anything against the faith, against reason, or against our conscience. If we
did we would bring judgment on ourselves.” It is deeply ironic that in defending
fidelity to the old religion Pirckheimer deploys language similar if not
identical to what Martin Luther used to defend himself at the Diet of Worms in
1521. When asked to recant his teachings he replied, “Unless I am convinced by
Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of the
Pope and the counsels for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is
captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go
against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
Now according to the official transcript of the proceedings, Luther’s statement
ended at this point, but his supporters in Wittenberg said that he had ended his
speech with the words “Here I stand and cannot do otherwise.” There is, however, no
evidence of this, but one of the sisters of the Franciscan community, Katherina
Ebner, did say, “Here I stand and I will not yield.” Katherina Ebner, a Franciscan
sister, said “Here I stand and will not yield.” Whether she was the first to use
the phrase “here I stand” I do not know. It is possible the sisters had heard of
Luther’s declamation at Worms and deliberately mimicked him, standing up to
the unjust demands of the council, but maybe not. The more telling point is that
the Franciscan and Martin Luther shared a common understanding of conscience
handed on in the medieval church. Freedom of conscience was not the creation of
the Reformation; it was embedded in Christian thinking and in the Christian mind
long before the sixteenth century. Pirckheimer had another argument. When official
representatives of the council were sent to plead with the sisters, “They
knew well,” she says “that we had always obeyed them before in temporal things,
but what concerned our soul we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”
She was not simply complaining that the magistrates had disrupted the life of
her community; she was making, however succinctly, a theological argument
based on the distinction of powers. It is not the
task of civic rulers to determine spiritual matters; the magistrates had
transgressed a boundary Christians held sacred. The distinction of powers was
given its classical formulation by Pope Gelasius in the early sixth century: “There
are two powers,” he writes, “by which this world is clearly ruled: namely the sacred
authority of the priests and the royal power. Christ separated the offices of
both powers according to their proper activities and special dignities.” Of
course what he’s reflecting are other words of Jesus: render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are of God. Okay, that’s my
first story. My second story: The events in Nuremberg disclosed
that the distinction of powers was a major point of conflict from the very
beginning of the Reformation. By the 1530s, only a remnant of the old religion
remained in the city, but a new threat had arisen: the emergence of the
Anabaptists, a more radical reform calling for adult or believers’ baptism,
hence the name “ana-baptist.” They claimed to return to the Christianity
of the New Testament when the church was made up of small communities of fervent
believers. But it was not what they believed but what they did that provoked the magistrates. They established independent
religious communities that threatened the traditional view that religion was the
vinculum societatis, the bond that held the society together. By insisting that
church membership was voluntary, the Anabaptists threatened social peace and
as one member of the city council put it, the devil seeks to “open a terrible
breach in our ranks so that the Word of God, true uniform religion, Christian
order, and the power of the sword of secular government will be completely
reduced to rubble.” But not all agreed. A man by the name of George Fralick, who
was a clerk in the city chancellery, wrote a memorandum entitled “Whether
Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Religion
or Faith.” He challenged the presumption that the city magistrates had authority
to carry out religious reforms in the city. The resurrection had resurrected a
historic debate within Christianity over the relation between spiritual authority
and political power. In the medieval world, it was an affair of the pope and
the emperor; in sixteenth century Nuremberg it took a different form.
Do secular officials have authority, do city magistrates have authority, to regulate
the religious practices and beliefs of all citizens? Where, asks Froelich, do the
magistrate’s get the right to control faith either by executing those who do
not wish to be of their faith or else tearing them from property and goods,
wife and children, and banishing them from the territory? The
only justification they give, says Froelich, it is their duty to protect
people in temporal matters, and they should do so in spiritual
matters. Now in support — this runs through all the writings of religious freedom —
the magistrates appoint to the kings of ancient Israel who promoted true worship,
abolished idolatry, and destroyed idols. But, says Froelich, in the Old Testament
there was a single commonwealth ruled by a king anointed by God. The New Testament
speaks of two kingdoms on earth, one spiritual and one secular, and nowhere
suggests that secular government should dictate religious matters. Christ rules a
spiritual Kingdom and secular rulers have sovereignty only over
temporal matters, just as each realm has its kings so each has its own “scepter
goal, and end.” A steel sword is of “no use in forcing people to adhere to this or
that faith” because belief rests on persuasion, not coercion. Now Froelich —
this is really getting to the heart of the matter — acknowledged that the
city council cannot allow discordant preaching, rebaptizing, polluted sacraments
and ceremonies, and above all the public abomination of the mass. But a sect — his
term — should be free to follow its own faith, to establish and observe its
doctrines and ceremonies, to engage and dismiss ministers, and to meet in
separate places. His words. What is more, the government should not
prohibit persons moving from one faith and being received into another. In short
he envisions a society which did not exist in which one religion would be
established and maintained by civil authority but which would allow other
faiths to be practiced. Significantly, he mentions the Anabaptists and the Jews. By
now the Catholics are out of the picture, he doesn’t even mention them now.
Froelich was a minor player in the Reformation and his ideas got little
hearing among the zealot reformers in Nuremberg, but he discerned something
that escaped others. With the collapse of the corpus christianum and
the formation of confessional communities, a way had to be found to
accommodate dissenting groups within the social body. The situation calls for a
new approach to non-conformism, so he makes the case for tolerance: sufferance
of beliefs and practices offensive to the people and rulers. So his argument is
in part pragmatic. The magistrates could not kill all those
who dissent. But it was supported by the ancient belief that religious belief could not be coerced and that religious faith
was an inner disposition of the heart and mind. He stands on the same ground as
the Franciscan sisters. What irked the city magistrate was not the
beliefs of private individuals but the public display of a form of Christianity
different from that of the officially sanctioned religion. People should not, it
was asserted, on the basis of their chosen faith be allowed to establish a
new assembly and preaching office in a community that is not theirs to govern,
and in which they have no public authority. This would be a public crime.
Citizens have no authority to call a preacher, that is, to organize a separate
religious association, in our language, to form a church. In
private they can follow their consciences, but they are prohibited from
forming separate religious fellowships. Let everyone believe and confess for
himself whatever he wishes; that is no concern to the magistrates. But it does
concern the magistrate when someone establishes a new sect or a new
preaching office without permission. Now what is at work here is
a new concept of the Church, what Ernst Troeltsch called the “sect type church” — by
contrast to the “church type church.” The church type represents a form of Christianity
that seeks to embrace the society as a whole. The sect
type is a small gathered community of committed believers who exist
independently of the state-supported religion. This new form of the church was
a frontal challenge to the medieval view that religion and political life were
complementary, as the French axiom had had it for centuries.
“One faith, one law, one King.” So two points. The Reformation gave life to the
medieval teaching that the world was governed by two powers, one spiritual and
the other temporal — albeit in a radically new form. And it brought into being a new
form of Christian life, the church as a voluntary association. Now during the
Reformation the doctrine of the two powers received its classical
formulation in the writings of John Calvin. “Man
is under a two-fold government,” he wrote. “One is spiritual
whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and reverencing God; the second is
political where man is educated for the duties of humanity and
citizenship that must be maintained among men. The spiritual pertains to the
life of the soul and the temporal with outward behavior — safety and food and housing, the needs of the present life, laws which allow human beings to live together.
These two realms are always to be viewed as separate from one another and it is this
formulation that would shape thinking on religious freedom for the
next 150 years. And it is the ultimate source of
the separation of church and state. I’m not going to talk about it here, but
Locke almost uses exactly the same words in his Letter on Toleration. He had not
read Calvin but the tradition had been so powerful by that time. But the notion is that the church is a voluntary association — the
second point — is no less significant. Roger Williams for example seldom used
“church” in the singular. For him the most congenial term is “particular churches,”
his designation for the covenanted fellowship of believers. He rejected
outright the notion that the church is an organized corporate body and his
thinking led to a takedown of the idea of a national church. Significantly, John
Locke uses the same phrase “particular churches” and draws the same conclusion. Says Locke, “A church then I take to be a voluntary society of men” — and he’s a
member of the Church of England — “the church I take to be a voluntary society
of men joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public
worshipping of God in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him and
effectual to the salvation of their souls.” Nor does Locke shrink from the consequences of that view. He says, “There is no difference between a national church and the separated congregations, even if
the magistrate joins himself to any church. The church remains as it was
before: a free and voluntary society. This new understanding of the church as a
voluntary society changed the calculus of
religious freedom. Political and religious leaders had to make space for
the public exercise of different forms of Christianity within societies that
historically had been united by one religion. This is seen most clearly
by Dutch writers in the late sixteenth century when Calvinist communities
sought freedom from the crushing weight of Spanish rule. A person with the lovely
name of Marnix of St. Aldegonde, the burgomaster
of Antwerp — a city which had been occupied by Spanish troops — put
it this way: Some claim that the war to be freed from Spanish rule was
undertaken to preserve the liberties of the country, but the Spanish
promise of freedom of conscience was given with the proviso that “there is no
public worship and no offense is given.” This, he said, is a trap, for it is well
known that conscience which resides in people’s minds is always free and cannot
be examined by other men, much less be put under their control. No one has been
executed merely on the grounds of religious belief; it is a public practice of
religion that is offensive. “There is no difference between freedom of conscience
without public worship and the old rigor and inquisition of Spain. How is it
possible to grant freedom of conscience without exercise of religion? How can
people enjoy the benefits of freedom if they cannot gather together to worship
God? If they have no ceremonies and do not
invoke God to testify to the piety and reverence, they’re in fact left without any
religion and without fear of God.” Here’s the point: Religious freedom is widely
thought to be about the rights of individuals to believe what they wish,
but with few exceptions the Reformation and the years following — the first
main exception is Sebastian Castellio’s critique of Calvin — the great debate in the sixteenth century was over the rights of
religious communities and the public practice of religion free exercise meant
the right not only to hold one’s confession of faith but to gather for
worship, to organize a community, to elect leaders, to form the young without
interference from the state. The Dutch — the final point before a brief
conclusion — were among the first to argue that liberty of conscience is a natural
right. A good example is a treatise entitled the Good Admonition to the Good
Citizens of Brussels in 1579. “It is well known,” writes this anonymous author, “that human
freedom is located in the soul, which is a chief part of us and in the view of which
we are called human. Freedom of soul means freedom of conscience. This freedom
means the person may accept and hold such a religion as his conscious
witnesses to him, that no one has the right or power to hinder him or to
forbid it violently. This freedom belongs to an individual by nature and by
natural right because religion is a bond that a person has with God. It is for
this reason that he owes no account to anyone besides God alone.” This is pungent
language that brings together in an original way ideas that had been in play
for centuries with the claim that liberty of conscience is a natural right.
The winding path of thinking on religious freedom begins to straighten. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the principal ideas associated with
religious freedom were widely acknowledged, though only sporadically
acted on: religious faith as an inner disposition of the
heart and mind, hence not subject to outward coercion; the distinction between the
civil and religious realm; and conscience as a form of knowledge that carries
and obligation to God. In forging this constellation of
concepts, Christian thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries worked out the
implication of ideas that had been handed on in Christian tradition,
adapting, modifying, and expanding them in a new social and religious world. Memory is
an inescapable feature of Christian intellectual life and
writings of the church fathers and medieval thinkers buttressed advocates of
religious freedom in the sixteenth century: Tertullian, the third-century North African
Christian who first used the phrase “religious freedom” (libertas
religionis) and said one person’s religion neither
harms nor hurts another; Lactantius, whom Thomas Jefferson actually quoted, fourth-century Latin writer who wrote religious faith cannot be
compelled (religio cogi non potest) — only words, not blows, can persuade; and
Thomas Aquinas. who argued that conscience is not simply a soul’s
knowledge, but conscience is an act. It was however only as the patrimony of the
past was buffeted by the rough torrent of occasion — the Reformation — that a full
doctrine of religious liberty came into being. Thank you very much.

Posted by Lewis Heart

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