“The God Who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” (Thomas Jefferson)
Steven Waldman in his excellent history about America’s founding fathers and the the rise of religious freedom, FOUNDING FAITH: PROVIDENCE, POLITICS, AND THE BIRTH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA, correctly identifies the American revolution as a different kind of religious war. For as he shows the colonies were at war with England over religious ideas, and to some extent it was the fervor of the dissenting, disenfranchised and disestablished evangelical religions in America which fueled the colonists’ willingness to fight. They were embracing the emerging idea of freedom of religion and conscience.
“This idea – that freedom comes from God– was the foundation for a new American conception of rights. If rights resulted from a social compact- a practical way of allowing for mutual survival- then they certainly could be altered by the majority when it seemed practical or convenient. If they came from God, however, they were immutable and inviolate, whether you were in the majority or not. This had particularly important implications for those wrestling with how to define and protect religious liberty. Toleration assumed that the state was generously choosing to do the tolerating. As Thomas Paine put it later, ‘Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.’ A God-given right is something quite different.” (pp 92-93)
This certainly was part of the revolutionary thinking of the founding fathers of the United States. They were no longer asking any government to grant legal permission for one religion or another to exist with the blessings of the state. They were carrying out a revolution in thinking, a total paradigm shift – in which religions are free to exist and the practice of individual conscience is a guaranteed human right granted to each human not by any government, state, or will of the people, but by God Himself. Not only were such rights not properly in the competency of a state to grant, all states could do or ever did was to oppose the rights of individuals to live according to the dictates of their consciences. The American revolutionary thinkers were demanding strict limits be put on national government, and that the state has to learn its limits not exercise some pseudo-power to limit the rights and consciences of individuals.
The notion of human rights, as something having a divine origin which supersedes any government authority is part of the American Revolution which we celebrate on Independence Day. It also in terms of freedom of religion empowers the individual to choose and practice religion according to the dictates of his or her own conscience. For established religion, this means having to work harder in an American freedom of religion setting. For now people don’t have to belong to any religion, but are free to choose or reject any or all religious traditions. And it is the individual, in accordance with the values of the Enlightenment, who ultimately gets to decide what religion (if any) they will practice, and in effect it is the individual alone who can determine which religion is true. The founding fathers expressed some confidence that the right of individual to choose his religion in fact would make religion stronger in America than in those countries where the state prevented freedom of conscience. On the basis of their idea, all members of a religion would consciously choose to be a participating member and the energy for the religion would come from the heart and soul of each believer – truly religions based on faith, not membership based on coercion. It is not hard to imagine why some fundamentalist Islamists would really hate these ideas enshrined in the American Constitution as the Islamists demand submission to Islam, not freedom of conscience for all.
Some religions, including my own Orthodox Church have at times struggled with all of this freedom and with the empowered individualism which it generates. Positively it has allowed countless individuals to embrace Orthodoxy and to convert to the Orthodox Faith as they exercise their own freedom of conscience and religion. But Orthodoxy has not been so comfortable with the sense that people are equally free to leave the Faith as they exercise their right of conscience. There is still a tendency to see members as possessions to be kept – our children, our teens, our college students. And Orthodoxy has not yet fully embraced the notion that in America we are in a marketplace of ideas and religions, and we have to compete for the attention and faithfulness of our members. Certainly many Protestant groups have had a couple of hundred years of experience in refining arguments in clashes with other denominations and in living in places where there was no government support for their church. The Orthodox are just recently on this scene of religious freedom, state indifference to religion, and the separation of church and state. The Orthodox do not like to see what they have to offer as a “product” which people might choose among many religious products. Yet when one reads about St. Paul in Athens, we realize that what we have here today is much more like what existed in the early days of Christianity. We are but one religious tradition among many, no matter how much we believe we represent true Christianity. And we encounter in America the same attitude St. Paul found in Berea:
“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 1711).
Orthodox priests and bishops need to learn the lesson of St. Paul – people are going to search the scriptures to see if what we say is true. They will do this because they are already familiar with the Scriptures as were the Bereans of Paul’s day. Not only will they search the scriptures, they are going to examine our lives to see if we live according to our teachings, and they are going to demand a total transparency in the leadership of our church and in our financial records in order for them to trust our witness.
See also my blogs James Madison and the Free Exercise of Religion and Freedom of Religion or a Religionless Campaign