Friday, June 29, 2012

The mutual dependence of civil and religious liberty

As we approach the Fourth, an interesting essay about the origins of American attitudes toward religious liberty. Joseph Loconte, on the roots of American religious toleration:
On Sunday morning, Jan. 21, 1776, at a church in Woodstock, Va., Rev. Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg brought his sermon to a dramatic and unexpected crescendo. His text was taken from the book of Ecclesiastes. "The Bible tells us 'there is a time for all things,' and there is a time to preach and a time to pray," said Muhlenberg. "But the time for me to preach has passed away; and there is a time to fight, and that time has now come."

Stepping down from the pulpit, the minister took off his clerical robes to reveal the uniform of a colonel in the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. He had been personally recruited by George Washington. Outside the church door, drums sounded as men kissed their wives goodbye and strode down the aisle to enlist. In less than an hour, 162 men from Muhlenberg's congregation joined the patriot cause.

The "fighting parson" was a common sight in the American Revolution. Why? Because American Christianity—anchored in a Protestant understanding of religious freedom—gave its blessing to democratic self-government. ....

Despite their theological differences, colonial Americans shared a singular doctrine about the nature of religious faith: It could not be imposed by force but must be embraced freely by the mind and conscience of the believer. ....

It is now widely assumed that religious toleration—a hallmark of the secular, democratic West—grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This may be true in much of Europe, but not in the United States. The evangelical preachers who supported the Revolution knew their Bible and believed it. They insisted that the gospel of Jesus upheld the rights of conscience in religious matters—Jesus never coerced anyone into following him, they pointed out—and that republican government would collapse without it.

Liberty of conscience became part of the American Creed. Embraced universally by the nation's clergymen, it quickened the thirst for political freedom. "There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire," warned John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. "If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage." .... [more]
Loconte: They Preached Liberty - WSJ.com