Religious Liberty & the Establishment of Religion

Religious Liberty and the Establishment of Religion

They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life (Luke 1:74-75; John 8:34; Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 2:16; 2 Pet 2:19).” Westminster Confession 20.3.

James Bannerman
The Church of Christ
I.viii, 5.2, pp. 162-168.

Are civil establishments of religion necessarily inconsistent with the principles of toleration?

The doctrine involved in such establishments, according to the opinion of the disciples of the Voluntary system, implies or unavoidably leads to persecution for conscience sake. If magistrates, as such, have a power to interfere about religion, then, it is objected, they must have a right incompatible with the duty and the privilege of private judgment,—a right to impose a certain form of faith and worship by law on their subjects, and to enforce it under the sanction of civil pains and penalties.

Power exercised about religion vs. in religion.

Now, it is not true that there is anything of this kind involved in the principle that the state may justly recognize, and establish, and endow by law, a particular profession of religion. There is a distinction, and a most important one, between the power of the civil magistrate “circa sacra,” and his power “in sacris;” and this distinction is greatly overlooked by those who urge the objection, that the principle of the connection between Church and state necessarily involves what is inconsistent with toleration. It is readily granted, that the power of the civil magistrate is in its proper character compulsory. It is further granted, that this power is employed in connection with the civil establishment and endowment of religion by the state. But a compulsory power exercised about religion, is a widely different thing from a compulsory power exercised in religion. The one of these is incompatible with the principles of toleration; the other of these is not.

To compel a man to believe, or to profess his belief in, a certain form of religion, and to comply with a certain fashion of worship, under the threatening or infliction of civil penalties if he refuse,—this is the exercise of a compulsory power in religion, and is inconsistent with the principles of toleration. But to compel a man to contribute of his property to the public treasury of the state, and to apply a portion of the tax, not upon his responsibility, but upon the responsibility of the state, to the endowment of the Church, this is the exercise of a compulsory power, not in religion, but about religion, and is nowise inconsistent with the principles of toleration. To oblige a man under civil pains to conform to the Church by law established, or to punish him for dissenting from it, is without dispute a violation of the right that belongs to all to worship God according to their conscience. But to oblige a man under civil penalties to contribute his share of a general tax, part of which is appropriated by the state to the use of religion, is no violation of the rights of conscience, unless it can be held to be so for the state, in any given case, to tax an individual for an object of which his conscience does not approve.

It is of no avail to plead that religion is a matter peculiar and separate from any other; and that for the state to make a man pay for the endowment of a religion of which he disapproves, is worse than to tax him for any other object of which he disapproves. It cannot be affirmed that the domain of conscience is limited to religion alone, or, in fact, that conscience has less to do with other matters. And it cannot be alleged, therefore, that conscience is violated in the case of a compulsory tax for the endowment of a religion which it cannot approve, and not violated in the case of a tax for any other purpose of which it cannot approve.

The compulsory or coercive power of the state may, in short, be employed in a variety of ways about religion, while it is not employed in religion. The state may give the sanction of civil authority to a particular Confession of Faith, while it inflicts no disabilities on those who reject that faith. The state may endow a particular Church, and impose a public tax for that purpose; while it imposes no penalty on those who dissent from the Church thus endowed. In doing this, it is arrogating to itself no power but what is competent to it in its place as the supreme civil authority; and above all, it is arrogating no power in any respect inconsistent with the right of private judgment or the principles of toleration.

The Voluntary Principle subverts true liberty of conscience.

But while it is thus plain and undeniable that the doctrine of civil establishments of religion does not involve anything inconsistent with the principles of toleration, or the right and duty of private judgment, the argument may be pushed a great deal further. It may fairly be argued, that the Voluntary principle, consistently carried out, subverts the very foundation on which alone the principles of toleration and the right of private judgment can be made properly and securely to rest; and that the opposite principle, which maintains the duty of the state to recognize religion, is the only one on which they can be fully and consistently defended.

On what footing, let me ask, does the right and duty of private judgment rest? What is it that gives me the title, which no man can lawfully take from me, to think, and judge, and act, and above all, to serve and worship God, as my own conscience, and not the conscience of another, shall dictate? What is it that confers on me the right to examine, and try, and prove all things for myself, without being responsible to man for the opinion I may form or the belief I may adopt?

The grounds of liberty of conscience.

The reason why I am not responsible to man for my opinions and belief, is because I am previously responsible to God. The cause why I am not accountable to my fellow in my search after truth, and in the judgments that I form, is just because I am before accountable to my Creator. This is the only sure foundation on which to rest the right of private judgment in a matter of faith and duty, so as that it shall be secure from the interference or tyranny of man. In such matters I cannot be the servant of man, because I am already the servant of God. My responsibility to God is too complete and sacred to admit of my being responsible in the same way to my fellow-creature. For what I believe,—for the opinions I have formed,—for the conclusions to which I have come in my search and inquiry after truth,—for all these I am accountable to God; and for that very reason I cannot be called upon to adopt a belief or assume a conviction at the bidding of man. In these matters I am the servant of another Master, and accountable only to Him. God claims the sole and supreme dominion over the conscience; and therefore it is that the conscience cannot be made the servant of man.

My right of private judgment in matters of belief rests upon the footing that there I am responsible to God; and that therefore with a responsibility due to Him man cannot dare to interfere. The principle of universal toleration is founded on the principle of the universal responsibility of men to their Maker. Resting upon this footing, toleration is the right of every man, too holy and Divine for man to intermeddle with, and to attempt to rob him of which is to interfere with the prerogative of God. Resting upon any other footing, toleration is a right but of a secondary and insecure kind, to deprive a man of which is merely to abridge his social or political privileges.

Voluntaryism falls short.

And how does the Voluntary theory stand in regard to the only foundation on which the principle of toleration can securely and truly rest? According to that theory, the state has nothing to do with God, or man’s relation to God, in the way of duty or privilege. The magistrate, in his official character, can know nothing of my responsibility to God, nor stand in awe of the right which that responsibility secures to me,—the right that, because accountable to Him, I cannot in the same way be accountable to man. The state, as the state, has nothing to do with my relation to God, and cannot therefore regard in the only true and proper light my freedom from responsibility to man, as the necessary result of my previous responsibility to God. The magistrate who, proceeding on the Voluntary theory, disowns all reference to God and man’s relation to God, may look on toleration as a social good or a political advantage; but he cannot look upon it in its highest and truest aspect, as a right due, not so much to man, as to God.

Let the state be brought to regard man in his relation to God, and as in matters of conscience responsible to Him; and it will regard the principle of toleration and the right of private judgment, in the case of the humblest of its subjects, as a privilege fenced round with the authority and sacredness of God. Let the state disown such a view of it, and the principle of toleration will be deprived of very much both of its security and of its significance.

The right to toleration is insecure if not properly grounded.

Any defence of the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, short of the argument that it is a right resulting directly from man’s responsibility to God, will, I am persuaded, be a weak and insecure one. The right to toleration in the case of every man results very immediately from the principle, which is true in questions of conscience as in others, that a man cannot serve two masters in the same matter, and that if he is already the servant of God in matters of religious belief, he cannot in the same sense be the servant of his fellow. The principles of universal toleration have indeed been argued upon other grounds, but the effect has been to betray the cause of freedom and of truth.

By one class of the defenders of the principle of free opinion and full toleration it has been argued, that the magistrate has no power to judge of truth or falsehood in religion, and that therefore he has no right to interfere with the opinions or convictions of his subjects. Such an argument as this is entirely fallacious, proceeding as it does upon the principle that the magistrate, because a magistrate, has ceased to be a man, and is himself absolved from his responsibility to God in matters of faith and religion.

By a second class of the unwise defenders of the principles of toleration it has been argued, that truth and falsehood in matters of opinion are equally innocent when sincerely and conscientiously held, and that no man therefore ought to be punished for his opinions, whatever they may be. Such an argument as this is no less unsound and mischievous than the former, founded as it is on the principle of the equal merit or demerit of truth and falsehood.

By a third class of the advocates of toleration it is argued, that man is not responsible for his belief at all, and that therefore he cannot be a subject for praise or blame for any of his opinions. Such an argument as this is still more flagrantly opposed to truth than any of the others, denying, as it virtually does, the essential characteristic of man as a moral and accountable being.

By another class still of the advocates of toleration it is argued, that the magistrate has nothing to do with opinions in any sense, and that it is both incompetent and impossible for him to deal with them, since they lie beyond the proper province of his authority altogether. And to a certain extent this argument is true, although not true in the wide and unlimited sense in which it is oftentimes urged.

God alone is Lord of the conscience. Not political or social expediency.

But all these defenses of the right of private judgment and public toleration, whether partially true or wholly false, agree in placing it on a footing directly calculated to lower its character and to weaken its claims. As a social good, calculated to promote the welfare of society, toleration is a privilege of no ordinary value. As a political good, one of the blessings of civil freedom, it is greatly to be prized. But there is a higher and holier aspect in which it is to be viewed. It is not as a social boon, or even as a political right, that it is principally to be regarded; nor is it on such a footing that its best defence is to be found. There is a higher character that it bears, and a more secure foundation on which it rests. The right of private judgment, as a right with which the magistrate in his public capacity, and my fellow-man in his private capacity, cannot and dare not intermeddle, is a privilege that belongs to me in virtue of my responsibility to God. Because by the very law of my being accountable to God, I must have freedom to obey Him; and man, whether in his official character as the magistrate or in his private character as my fellow-creature, cannot take from me that freedom. Within the domain of conscience God claims the sole and supreme authority; and with that claim man may not interfere. The principle of toleration ultimately rests on my right in matters of conscience “to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

Only the Establishment Principle can support true liberty of conscience.

What, then, is the conclusion of the whole argument? Is the principle involved in a recognition by the state of God, and man’s responsibility to God, hostile to the principles of toleration and incompatible with the right of private judgment? The very reverse is the case. The right of toleration can never be placed on a secure foundation, such as that it shall appear a right too solemn and sacred to be intermeddled with by a fellow-creature, until the state is brought to see that it is a right of God and not of man,—a right flowing directly from the relation in which man stands to his Maker.

Is the principle involved in the Voluntary theory—that the state has nothing to do with God, and man’s duty to God—the only principle consistent with the rights of conscience and the claims of toleration? The very reverse is the case. By divorcing the principle of toleration from its direct relation to God, it robs it of half its authority, and more than half its sacredness, and degrades it from the level of a Divine appointment to that of a mere political privilege,—a civil claim to be owned or rejected according to considerations or notions of political expediency, and not a right as from God, never in any circumstances or on any pretense to be denied or resisted.

The principle involved in the Voluntary theory is hostile equally to the true independence of the Church and the true claims of toleration. Let that principle be carried out to its legitimate issue, and let the state disown the Church as an ordinance of God, and regard it as a merely human and voluntary society, and almost the only security for its spiritual independence is removed; and its freedom, wherewith Christ made it free, is laid open to the encroachment and tyranny of Caesar [cf. Sec. 5.1]. Once more, let that principle be carried out to its legitimate issue, and let the state divorce the claim of toleration from the sanction and authority given to it by God, and the very foundations of religious freedom are undermined and shaken; and the right of private judgment loses a great part of its security, because it loses all its sacredness.


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