made religious intolerance intolerable
by Tom Van Dyke
In 2010, there are approximately 34,000 sects of Protestantism. Other religions measure their sects and denominations in mere handfuls.
After witnessing the tragedy of religious wars of Europe, and fleeing from it, the Americans figured out that soteriology [the business of salvation, of the next world] doesn't have to be synonymous with political theology [the business of this world].
Thank God. Mebbe I'm going to hell, or mebbe you are, but let's all be Americans, live in peace, and talk about it over a beer. This is our political theology in a nutshell. Thankfully, salvation isn't up to politics, law, or a democratic vote.
And frankly, I'm happy that the question of my salvation and the afterlife is up to God, and not you. I suspect we would all send each other to hell a lot quicker than God would.
The political theology of the Founding was this: God and His Providence are an immediate reality, not an abstract "doctrine." He looks down upon us, and smiles or frowns upon us depending on our actions, and is not some absentee landlord.
The corollary is that rights are endowed by God, and that there's a higher order than merely man's law. That was the Founding, and for that I say God bless America.
Yes, the soteriology of “a future state of rewards and punishments” was seen as largely necessary for good individual conduct. And a proper theological understanding of liberty—--freedom—---is our liberation from the bondage of sin, from base human desire, by the grace of God. You might scare a few people into proper conduct by threatening them with hell, but probably not for long.
Most men will only behave decently---Christian-ly---because of their love of God. He loves his neighbor only because he loves God: our neighbor is not very lovable, let's face it. I want to shoot one of mine. [Two or three, actually.]
Such virtue and therefore self-governance were seen as necessary for this liberty thing to work, and that was expected to be inculcated by religion. Liberty is not license, said John Locke, and no Founder disagreed. [Not even the peg-legged sybarite Gouverneur Morris.]
It was Mr. Locke, in his famous “Letter Concerning Toleration,” who made the elegant theological point that no government can get you into heaven anyway. So much for soteriology and the state.
“The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul? I answer: What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate, which things are nearlier related to the government of the magistrate than the other?
No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no. Nay, God Himself will not save men against their wills.”
No government is going to get you into heaven. Who could argue with that? Perhaps John Locke is a product of the Enlightenment, but that's a theological argument worthy of Augustine or Aquinas. I doubt Luther or Calvin object to it either.
And leaving out the theological or "rights" questions about the right to religious freedom, in the 1600s, Europe proved that the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s spawned so many "heretical" sects that if Christendom had to burn all its heretics, it would have run out of wood.
Any theology that doesn't hold up on earth as it is in heaven probably isn't a very good one. "Love your neighbor as yourself" works pretty well: your neighbor is more likely to love you if you don't shoot him. "Kill the infidel" doesn't work as well, since he thinks you're an infidel, too. Ouch.
And even if you kill him for his own good, that's not going to get him into heaven, so it's not very nice, and it's not even charitable either. Better to let him live, and hope one day God shows him the error of his ways, in His Own time, not yours.