Friday, November 14, 2008

Freedom of Conscience: Among the Blessings of our Christian Nation

Some people, not knowing that mortal nature disintegrates in death, torture themselves in conscience (syneidesis) with evil deeds performed during their lifetime. (Democritus, Fragment 297)

… the word ‘conscience’ (or syneidesis…) is a Western and almost exclusively Christian word. (Edward Andrew, Conscience and its Critics, p. 12)

I hope to advance two notions in the following post: (1) that “freedom of conscience” is conceptual gibberish in any setting other than (protestant) Christian theology; and (2) that “freedom of conscience” is an American theological innovation (in the same sense that hamburgers and french fries are American despite being invented elsewhere), for which we today can be grateful, as we live in a society architected by men who understood the American Christian theology of freedom.

To my first point, that “freedom of conscience” is gibberish outside of Christianity, how can that be? After all, Wikipedia helpfully redirects us from freedom of conscience to freedom of thought, so there isn't really anything special going on here, is there? Ah, but there is.

Consider, first, the postmodern view, e.g. that of Freud, a post-Christian writer who, given his chosen field of analysis, ought to have a thing or two to say of freedom of conscience, if there is anything for a post-Christian to say. Alas, we have to translate our query into Freud's terminology, but having done so, we can Google “freedom of superego” to confirm that there is nothing there. Freud shares the pre-Christian view (e.g. that of Democritus, quoted above) that conscience is not something that can be free, but rather something that stands in the way of freedom: to be free, the ego must (among other things) overcome the superego (i.e. the will must overcome the conscience). The superego is not an agent of freedom, it is an obstacle to freedom, an artifact of our conditioning acting to rein us in.

Similarly, in the traditional medieval philosophical view, the conscience stands in conflict with the will when the will wants what is wrong. The advice of the conscience (conscientia antecedens) can be ignored by the will, in which case the conscience remains to condemn the act (conscientia subsequens), or else the free person can choose to conform his will to his conscience. The person experiencing conflict between his will and his conscience cannot choose to conform his conscience to his will: the will is free, the conscience is not. There is no “freedom of conscience” in traditional philosophy, the expression is incoherent.

So how is the Christian view different from this, if at all? First, many Christian philosophers (e.g. Locke) have held the philosophical view, rather than the Christian view, of conscience. Locke went so far as to take, regarding conscience and its origins, the Freudian view long before Freud did (that conscience is a result of conditioning, holding us back). But apart from Christian philosophers, Christian theologians have has always wrestled with the problem of errors of conscience. The conscience has, in Christian theology, been viewed both as capable of learning on the one hand, and of wandering into error on the other. This is a far cry from the capriciousness of the free will, but it is still indicative of freedom of a sort for the conscience, and unfortunately it has also always formed the basis for Christian persecution: what is free can be influenced, and coercion is just the influential cousin of persuasion.

Aquinas, for instance, taught that (1) an erring conscience must be obeyed; but (2) man has sufficient innate knowledge of the Word of God to recognize moral truth if it is shown to him. It is sinful on the one hand to act in opposition to your conscience, but sinful on the other hand for your conscience to reject correction when it is provided on the basis of scripture or other authoritative teaching. In other words, the conscience is capable of error, and even of choosing to persist in error. This is not yet encouraging for the development of Christian freedom of conscience, but our story gets there eventually.

In launching the Reformation (not his intent, but his effect), Luther published an influential tract on Christian freedom. Building on Thomistic ideas of conscience, (and also curiously anticipating Freud's concept of the id in his analysis of the role of desire interacting with reason and conscience), Luther argued that an intact conscience agrees with the Word of God, but a conscience that falls away from the Word is no longer a conscience at all. This is a refinement on the Thomistic view that a conscience can recognize the Word when taught it; for Luther a conscience ceases to be a conscience except in the Word, and can only be revived with reinstitution of the Word. The significance of this for freedom is that a fallen conscience cannot be coerced, because there is no conscience there to respond to the coercion. One can do no more for a fallen conscience than provide the Word in every way, in preaching and example. This doctrine didn't lead to our modern freedom of conscience either, as it justified (indeed implicitly called for) mandatory religious education, which in practice meant mandatory membership in the regionally dominant church. Freedom of conscience, as we now understand it, had a tough time finding support in either scholastic or Reformation thought (full disclosure: I am Lutheran).

Roger Williams, the renegade hero of American religious liberty, hit upon a different perspective on the problem of coercion of conscience: he believed that coercion was possible, unfortunately, but that it was not soterially effective. Williams was a believer in individual covenants, thus distinguishing himself from the mainstream of Puritan New England with their tradition of collective covenants. For Winthrop and others of the Massachusetts Bay colony, the sovereignty to covenant with God resided in the community, just as in previous times God covenanted with Israel, rather than with individual Hebrews. For Williams (and other separatists, and later Baptists and Methodists etc.), the sovereignty to covenant resided with each individual, and congregations were simply voluntary associations of like-minded believers. The consummation of such an individual covenant was regeneration (the Puritan term for being “born again”), a conversion experience to which Williams and others imputed intrinsic significance beyond its instrumental value in bringing about conformance of conscience to the Word.

Williams, like others wrestling with Anabaptist ideas, believed that it was possible to bring a person into conformance with Christian teachings and beliefs (e.g. by raising them in Christianity from childhood, as was done in Anglican and other established churches) without thereby bringing them to an effective conversion experience and regeneration. By stressing the importance of the conversion experience and regeneration over any version of learned or coerced orthodoxy or orthopraxy (however sincerely held), Williams was denying the effectiveness of coercion at effecting salvation, even if it was effective at changing beliefs, because a person could sincerely believe everything that Christianity required, yet still not have the transformational experience that makes it all soterially effective.

In this, Williams finally had a tight answer to the dilemma of Christian freedom: how do you affirm that the conscience is free, yet deny that it can or should be coerced? Williams' slippery answer is to say that while it may very well be that conscience truly can be coerced, nonetheless coercing conscience doesn't get you the only outcome that would justify the coercion in the first place, namely salvation, because it only achieves belief without fostering the conversion experience. By contrast, other Christian and humanist defenders of religious toleration either argued that in fact the conscience simply cannot be coerced, a claim which was in plain contradiction to scholastic teaching, to the experience of previous generations of inquisitors, and even to the teaching of philosophers such as Locke (for whom conscience is a product of conditioning, itself a form of coercion); or else they argued that truth in matters of religious dispute was not known, and the risk of coercion on the side of error was too great to take the chance, an argument that had no traction among those certain of their correctness.

It is important to understand that Williams was not a tolerant Christian; far from it. He was ultimately kicked out of the Bay colony over the issue of communion with Anglicans in Britain. The Bay colony Puritans were for communion with their mother church, believing that their mission in America was to shine like a “city on a hill”, to show the proper way to God to their lost brethren overseas. Williams was opposed to transatlantic communion fellowship with Anglicans, arguing that the Anglican church was impure and anti-Christian. Because the Puritans of Bay colony remained in communion with Anglicans, Williams cut off communion fellowship of his own congregation with the Puritans. The Puritan civil authorities tried to bring the intolerant Williams back into the larger community, and Williams began to preach against the jurisdiction of civil authority in matters of religion. Williams taught religious freedom in defense of his own religious intolerance.

As interesting as all of this might be, (or not), what has it to do with events a century later, when the civil institutions of a new independent nation were being formed? The answer is that these issues of freedom of conscience, conditioning in established churches, and evangelization of nominal Christians, which were a sideshow curiosity in Winthrop and Williams' era (Williams looms more significant to us in hindsight than he appeared to his contemporaries – Rhode Island had a population of only 7181 as late as 1708, its first census), grew and came to the front of national debate in the fullness of time. One of the important scandals of the pre-revolutionary generation was the licensing of preachers by the various states with their established churches, and deregulation of evangelization was an important objective of those who framed the first amendment to the Constitution. Just as Williams was more concerned to convert nominal Christians who were nonetheless unregenerate than to convert the Indians, so the Baptists and revivalists of later generations were concerned to preach in the public square, and they often found their way barred by civil authority. Separation of church and state was not intended to keep religion out of the public square, but rather to open the floodgates, releasing an inundation of religion into the public square. The check on promulgation of religious beliefs was not meant to be secularization of civil authority but respect for freedom of conscience, an American Christian theological principle that established a condition necessary for effective evangelization, a condition that civil authorities were charged with protecting. This is important to remember whenever we see the expression “rights of conscience” in the founders’ writings. This is a Christian civil principle, not a secular enlightenment principle, and the founders (who often praise generic “Christian principles” without enumerating them) knew it.

Was freedom of conscience intended to be limited to Christians? Of course not. For instance Williams, in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, explicitly makes the point that freedom of conscience is necessary for conversion of the Jews. Our civil doctrine of freedom of conscience was motivated by, and intended to fulfill, Christian principles of evangelization both of Christians and of non-Christians. Freedom of conscience is a uniquely Christian concept, incomprehensible outside of a Christian context, and advanced specifically by the most intolerant Christians of America in their day, those who looked upon their nominally Christian brethren and said “I’m concerned that you may not be saved, not yet anyway”.

If you have made it this far through my post, you probably think me daft, bereft of reason, ignorant of the facts, or all three (and more). But the casual counterarguments that I know of don’t impress me. For instance, the Constitution and Federalist papers don’t explain any of our civil institutions as being required by any theological principle. How do I answer that?

By wondering why anyone would think, in an American context, that they should.

By an American context I have in mind the distinction between the bottom-up approach of the establishment of American civil institutions (where the people describe and limit the powers that they grant to institutions) and the top-down approach of, e.g., divine-right monarchy, socialism, the UN, etc., where institutions enumerate their own prerogatives, and perhaps also some freedoms granted to the people or to subordinate institutions. In the latter case it is easy to see how reference might be made to religious principles, while in the former case it is equally easy to see why God, Jesus, and the Bible are not mentioned in the Constitution, or its defense in the Federalist papers, as requiring certain forms for our civil institutions: those institutions are explicitly fallible human creations, not divine designs. To claim that our fallible human creations are designed by God would be blasphemy. And yes, the founders were very aware that they were establishing fallible human institutions, hence their healthy respect for checks and balances.

To take another try, many founders quoted Locke and claimed his influence upon the founding. To be sure, they also often cited general “Christian principles”, but still, mustn’t we give Locke (and others) his due? In short, my answer is “no”. The founders were proven historical revisionists, rewriting American history to weave Locke in, ex post facto, where he didn’t belong, e.g. JQ Adams giving a Lockean twist to the pre-Lockean “Mayflower compact” (i.e. Mayflower covenant) thus: “the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.” Given such willingness to interpret pre-Lockean events in Lockean terms, the founders’ enthusiasm for Locke should be seen as rationalization, not explanation.

To the common claim that the founders weren’t, by and large, Christian, because they were Unitarians, or whatever, my reply is to defend big-tent interpretations of Christianity, at least when we are acting as students of history, rather than engaging in sectarian squabbles. To the historian, the criteria that delimit Christianity must, of course, be different in detail than the criteria that delimit Buddhism, or Marxism, but they should be similarly loose and inclusive. Just as all Marxists are Marxists to anyone but a devout Marxist, so also anyone who attributes historical singularity to Christ (whether as redeemer of mankind, son of a unitary God, one person of a triune God, a member of the divine troika, seal of the prophets, resurrected worker of miracles, etc.) should be acknowledged, by any historian thinking in his capacity as a historian, to be a Christian, even if the historian happens also to be a strict sectarian Christian who denies the true Christianity of competing sects. By this standard, historically speaking, (whatever I think as an orthodox Lutheran), Arians, Nestorians, Mormons, etc., are all Christians for scholarly purposes of historical analysis.

To the obvious claim that the founders weren’t in agreement on the relationship between Christianity and republican democracy, and therefore could not have had any consensus on whether America should be founded as a Christian nation, I would reply that the principal division among the founders was on priority between Christianity and republican democracy, but as Tocqueville rightly observed, there was broad consensus on combination of the two. In other words, the founders disagreed on whether America is a republican democracy, and therefore should be a Christian nation, or whether instead America is a Christian nation, and therefore should be a republican democracy. Note in particular the former position: that America can be a republican democracy first and unconditionally, but that it then must therefore be a Christian nation as well, despite the unconditional nature of the founding of republican democratic institutions. This is an interpretation that fits “left-wing” founders well, and bypasses all objections of the sort that we cannot be a Christian nation because our institutions were founded without determining them from Christian principles (even though, as I argue above, freedom of conscience is an American Christian principle).


Brad Hart said...

An excellent post, Kristo.

This may be oversimplifying your argument but isn't freedom conscience in the eyes of the beholder? take for example your take on Luther's understanding of a freedom of conscience You state:

an intact conscience agrees with the Word of God, but a conscience that falls away from the Word is no longer a conscience at all.

Isn't one man's "falling away from the Word" another man's "agreement with the word?" I guess this is why Roger Williams (as you eloquently point out) decided in favor of persuading people to accept a certain form of conscientiousness over another...or at least that is my understanding.

You also write:

"Separation of church and state was not intended to keep religion out of the public square, but rather to open the floodgates, releasing an inundation of religion into the public square. The check on promulgation of religious beliefs was not meant to be secularization of civil authority but respect for freedom of conscience, an American Christian theological principle that established a condition necessary for effective evangelization, a condition that civil authorities were charged with protecting."

Well said. I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

I am unable to follow the argument of this post.

To support the first claim, one would have to examine non-Christian cultures to see if any of them have the conceptual materials for making sense of freedom of conscience. And yet, near as I can tell, the post never even mentions any non-Christian cultures. It's as if I said "non-Christians have no concept of time" and then went on to discuss only Christians.

Also the post seems to conflate (i) the metaphysical freedom frequently discussed under such headings as "liberty and necessity", "freedom of the will", and "free will and determinism", (perhaps the sort discussed by Freud) with (ii) the political freedom discussed in Mill's On Liberty and Locke's 2nd Treatise.

And, perhaps most significantly, it conflates (i) "conscience" as in the little voice in our head, Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket, or Smith's "man within the breast", who helps us tell right from wrong, with (ii) the "conscience" of "freedom of conscience", which has to do with all of our convictions and opinions, religious and moral and political and so on.

Any discussion of freedom of conscience must focus on the political freedom citizens have to hold and express opinions. But this post seems to focus on the question of whether our moral conscience is truly free in some metaphysical sense. This just looks like changing the subject, or making a pun.

And I'd like some substantiation for these claim about Locke:

First, many Christian philosophers (e.g. Locke) have held the philosophical view, rather than the Christian view, of conscience. Locke went so far as to take, regarding conscience and its origins, the Freudian view long before Freud did (that conscience is a result of conditioning, holding us back).

Where did Locke ever say such a thing? The Essay? The 2nd Treatise? The Letter concerning Toleration? Maybe I'm overlooking something, but I find this all highly dubious.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Masterful and provocative, Kristo, and a bravo for your first roll-up-your-sleeves post here. There is much to be discussed, as there is so much pith.

I understand your opening salvo to mean that the conditions that led to the American vision of liberty [now embraced more or less by the world, although there is more more---global leftism---and less less---Muslim rejection of UN-type declarations of human rights] were where theology met the quite practical problem of what to do with so many dogmatically competing sects.

The proposed political solution, that of a pluralism, has worked pretty well. Theologically, it gets even more interesting, that the only good and true way to come to God---or religion, or religiousity---is without coercion.

Christians often ask the theological question "Why did God permit so many sects?"

So that each person might have to work his/her way through the muck and twaddle directly to God for themselves, the only true religiosity?

soterial, a. pertaining to salvation. soteriology, n. theological study of salvation; treatise on hygiene, according to the internet Dictionary of Difficult words.

Even if faith alone saves, there's a difference between an outward acceptance of the Word of God and taking it to heart.

I believe this begins address Mr. Hart's quite valid reservations, and to dave2, please do counterargue that the Founding milieu, born of the ancient Greeks and Christianity---Athens and Jerusalem---is NOT unique, which I believe is Mr. Miettinen's foundational argument. Counterargue, por favor, with examples from other religions and cultures.

[Hint: Zoroastrianism and the Persian Cyrus are the best counterargument I've discovered. But there are counters to that counterargument. How deep do you want to go, dave2? Please give Mr. Miettinen a break on citing chapter and verse, as a check on his bio reveals he's not only a learned man but a very busy one too. Please accept my assurance that's he's entitled to at least some benefit of the doubt that he's not talking out his ass.

I myself will double-check his interesting and provocative assertions, but I'll do it on my time and not his.

OK? I want to hear more from him as he fleshes out his thesis, which he'll do if he doesn't constantly have to watch his back. I already find him credible, as he claims Locke only for philosophical Christianity, not the brainless bible-thump kind.]

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Brad!

Yes, freedom of conscience is, in some sense, in the eye of the beholder, but not in the sense that matters for civic discourse. (This is like my point about it not mattering which way the arrow of necessity points between republican democracy and a Christian nation). If you share Luther's analysis (not a given by any stretch of the imagination), then even if you disagree with your neighbor on the dictates of conscience, you nevertheless agree on how to proceed: you quote scripture to him, and try by your own example to live the word and show him thereby the true spirit and logos. Your neighbor retaliates by doing the same to you. Quite civilized, no?

Hi Dave!

Andrew, in his book I mentioned (Conscience and its Critics), discusses non-Christian cultures in more detail, if you're interested. You can find his opening chapters online at Google books. Nothing much to report. Wikipedia similarly. Proving an absence is hard to do briefly; all you can do is search and report back finding nothing.

Just take your own example: how long a post would it take to "prove" that Christians had no concept of "X", whatever X is?

That said, I don't duck my responsibilities to persuade; I give a few, to my eyes, illustrative examples to show why freedom of conscience, the rights of conscience, etc, make no sense outside of Christianity: I discuss Freud, Locke, etc., and show how the notion that conscience could have rights makes no sense in the commonsense interpretaion of what a conscience is, so that what is needed is an uncommon view of conscience, which Christianity provides. If you know of a similar thought system that might have contributed this uncommon idea to our founders, let me know, and I'll look into it.

I'm not conflating political freedom with freedom of action; I'm showing that non-Christian interpretations of conscience must inevitably conflate freedom of conscience with freedom of thought, as their anthropology lacks the necessary duality of free faculties. Thus Wikipedia maps from one to the other as though they were the same.

Let's say that we wanted to develop your idea that conscience is "all of our convictions and opinions, religious and moral and political and so on". How can a body of ideas be free? We can be free to form a body of ideas, but that is a different freedom. Part of my point is that "freedom of conscience" need not map into some other freedom; it is an important freedom in its own right.

I'll find you some stuff on Locke, maybe tonight...

Hi Tom!

I think that the crux to Dave2 is Locke; the rest of his argument is chaff. If he can be shown what I'm talking about on Locke, he'll lose interest in the other stuff, so asking him to back it up is asking him to commit a labor which doesn't really interest him.

Kristo Miettinen said...

OK, here's a quick hit on Locke:

Locke, in EHU, argues extensively against innate moral principles, which he identifies with conscience, e.g., "Where then are those innate principles of justice, piety, gratitude, equity, chastity? Or, where is that universal consent, that assures us there are such inbred rules? Murders in duels, when fashion has made them honourable, are committed without remorse of conscience, nay, in many places, innocence in this case is the greatest ignominy. And if we look abroad, to take a view of men, as they are, we shall find, that they have remorse in one place, for doing or omitting that, which others, in another place, think they merit by." (EHU 1.3.9) He goes on to argue, at many paragraphs' length, the cultural relativity of moral principles, i.e. the cultural relativity of conscience. To the counterclaim that Locke isn't really talking about conscience here, but merely about morality, I offer two points: (1) the fact that Locke doesn't bother to treat conscience as a separate topic worthy of its own extended consideration, apart from culturally acquired morality, is the very point I was making about Locke (and others) in the first place; (2) in arguing for acquired rather than innate morality, Locke is arguing against common (in his time) views of conscience, even if he only uses the word 'conscience' in passing (e.g. as quoted above).

The other point worth making, also from EHU (1.27), is that Locke ties identity to consciousness, in deliberate distinction to conscience. This is, in distinctive terminology (familiar to us today but obscure in his time), Locke's way of taking up the pagan rather than the Judeo-Christian view of man: Locke defends man the rational animal, rather than man the moral animal, man as a center of reason rather than man as a center of guilt. Kant would, a century later, famously argue that the two are the same, that being rational and being moral are two aspects of the same quality, but this synthesis was unkown in Locke's time.

Anonymous said...


I would very much like to see how "the rest of [my] argument is chaff" (though I'd appreciate it if you stopped with the mean-spirited psychoanalysis).

I suppose the main source of my perplexity is this: "freedom of conscience" concerns the political freedom we might have to form and express opinions without government interference -- or at least this is how I've always heard the term used. But you seem to think freedom of conscience is something very different, as something involving the moral conscience -- that faculty or operation of the mind -- enjoying metaphysical freedom (as if by analogy to "freedom of the will"). I've never heard anyone say anything like this in my life. So it looks for all the world as if your post rests on a misunderstanding of the term "freedom of conscience". Ideally, you could both (i) explain what you mean by "freedom of conscience" and (ii) show that this is an attested use of the term (as opposed to an unprecedented or idiosyncratic use of the term). But I think anything you could provide would be helpful, since I am at a complete loss.

A minor corollary: I agree that it is odd to ask whether a body of ideas can be free, but I think it is also odd to discuss whether the conscience is free. As I've said, "freedom of conscience", in my experience as an English speaker, is just freedom of opinion of the sort discussed by Mill.

I appreciate the reference to the Andrew book, but I was under the impression that your post was intended to show (or at least provide strong support for) the claim that "'freedom of conscience' is conceptual gibberish in any setting other than (protestant) Christian theology". That is why it is extremely perplexing that your post contains no examination of non-Christian cultures. I of course agree with your point that it would be difficult to show that Christians were all missing out on a concept. Indeed, I am skeptical of any claim to the effect that certain cultures are completely missing out on as central a concept as conscience. That's why I would never make such a claim, certainly not in a blog post, unless I had killer evidence at hand.

As for Locke, I think you've misapprehended the source of my objection. Your original claim was that, on Locke's view, "conscience is a result of conditioning, holding us back" in a sense somewhat comparable to Freud. I was objecting more to the "holding us back" part than to the "result of conditioning" part. Let me explain.

I am of course well aware of Locke's argument against innate principles and innate ideas in Book I of the Essay, and I know his arguments against innate moral (or 'practical') principles. So I fully recognize that Locke thinks that conscience is frequently shaped by one's "education, company, and [national] customs". To that extent, Locke of course does think that conscience is a result of conditioning. I would only add the strong qualification that Locke also (quite notoriously) thinks that morality, much like Euclidean geometry, is capable of demonstration (EHU, 3.11.16-18, and of course 4.3.18-20), and that he states in the 2nd Treatise that the law of nature can be known by reason. These qualifications are of obvious relevance to conscience, given Locke's definition of 'conscience' as "our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions". So it is misleading to simply state that, for Locke, "conscience is a result of conditioning", and yet it has some truth to it.

But what I strongly object to (or at least what I should like to see substantiated) is the claim that Locke has the proto-Freudian view that conscience "hold[s] us back". I have no expertise when it comes to Freud, but when it comes to Locke, I can think of several strong reasons for doubting this claim (for one thing, his view that laws that do not conduce to our advantage are "in vain"), but no reasons whatsoever for affirming it. So, again, can you point me to anything in Locke that might support your claim?