Sunday, June 16, 2019

Civil and Religious Liberty

“In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.” – James Madison (Federalist No. 51, 1788).

The history of the connection between civil and religious liberty extends back to England in the 1600’s. “The parliamentarians of the English civil war fought against grievances on two fronts: political and religious. In politics they fought for ‘liberty’, in religion for ‘reformation’…Over the course of the revolution, the two causes became linked, so that by 1659–60 the phrase ‘civil and religious liberty’ had become ubiquitous. It would be a defining feature of English political vocabulary for a quarter of a millennium,”[1]  and it extended into the heart of the American Revolution in the 1700’s. “American colonists widely agreed with this sentiment. “Civil and religious liberty” went together, but religious liberty was more fundamental, as it dealt with eternal matters, not just temporal ones. Moreover, many believed that the loss of civil liberty generally preceded the loss of religious freedom. As one pastor put it in 1766, “We could not long expect to enjoy our religious liberties, when once our civil liberties were gone.”[2]

To the Founders and most American colonists, both civil liberty and religious liberty were viewed as companion “natural rights,” inherent in the divine nature of man. They firmly believed, fought, and bled for the self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence that, “...that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In this regard, the revolutionary war was as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society,”[3]  as it was against financial oppression. While the Founders and American colonists were very concerned with their civil liberty and economic freedom, demanding “no taxation without representation,” they were as much or more concerned with their religious liberty, particularly in preserving their rights of individual conscience and public morality.[4]  In fact, as General, George Washington confirmed that, “the establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive that induced me to the field of battle.”[5]

Our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were patrons of religion (Washington was an Episcopal vestryman, and Adams was a devoted Congregationalist and Unitarian) and both offered strong rhetorical support for religion and morality as the basis for civil liberty and freedom. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens,” and concluded that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Adams wrote that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”[6]  With respect to freedom of conscience, Washington stated, “While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable.”[7]  Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, agreed with Washington and his language became part of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia: “[T]hat the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty.”[8]

While the Founders and colonists were concerned that the loss of their civil liberties would precede the loss of their religious liberties, the opposite may now be true. In our day, there is a concerted effort by some to elevate civil liberties or secular rights above religious liberties, including the right of conscience. For example, according to Chairman Martin R. Castro of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, phrases such as ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ should now be considered “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, …or any other form of intolerance.” In this document (issued in September 2016), the United States Commission on Civil Rights—purportedly a bipartisan, independent federal commission—makes the unambiguous determination that status-based civil liberties should supersede religious liberties.[9]  More recently, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act (H.R. 5, 116th Congress). The Equality Act provides no protections for religious freedom. It would instead repeal long-standing religious rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Such efforts tend to undermine the crucial, stabilizing influence of religion in public life and may jeopardize the equal rights of each individual under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

All citizens should study and lend their voices and opinions to these critical issues. As we do so, we would be wise and prudent to consider the historical and long-held conviction that in our nation civil rights and religious rights are inextricably connected, rely on one another, and must be maintained in balance. While sometimes difficult, fairness for all may be achieved. We, as Americans who have inherited both civil and religious liberty, and whose principles and traditions set our nation apart from all others, should reflect on the timeless precept that, “The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.”[10]
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Photo: Sculpture of Religious Liberty by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Philadelphia, 1876 (Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Smallbones)
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Footnotes:
 [1] Blair Worden, “Civil and Religious Liberty”, Chapter 8 in God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford Scholarship Online, May 2012). https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199570492.001.0001/acprof-9780199570492-chapter-9 
 [2] Thomas Kidd, The American Founding: Understanding the Connection between Religious and Civil Liberties-Religious Freedom Institute (June 4, 2016).
 [3] Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Regnery Publishing, Washington D.C., 1996) p. 142.
 [4] See, e.g., Id., Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue; Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner, In Search of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government (Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey, 1987).
 [5] Letter to the Ministers, Elders, Deacons, and Members of the Reformed German Congregation of New York, November 27, 1783, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 37 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931-1940), 27:249.
 [6] Adams to Zabdiel Adams, Philadelphia June 21. 1776; see also Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Religion and the Federal Government, Part 1, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06.html 

 [7] Letter to Benedict Arnold, September 14, 1775.
 [8] Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779); Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (Virginia, 1777).
 [9] Deseret News, U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairman says religious freedoms 'stand for nothing except hypocrisy':
 https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865662326/US-Civil-Rights-Commission-chairman-says-religious-freedoms-stand-for-nothing-except-hypocrisy.html; https://www.usccr.gov/press/2016/PR-09-07-16.pdf

[10] Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1819, Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, Washington, D.C., 1905), 19:416.


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