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Conscience and Freedom

The Church: 17. Conscience and Freedom


We are witnessing a fascinating change in the 'experiment' of Western society in our day, a change that directly affects the Church and its mission.  The change, while multi-faceted, includes a fundamental adjustment being made in the very notion on which so much of Western society has been built since the 1600s--freedom.  The change involves a radical revision of the relationship between conscience and freedom.

The Peace of Westphalia

Go back to the beginning of the 17th century--in a pre-Enlightenment stage of European history--and you will find yourself in an intellectual and social conundrum: 'How can we affirm what is true when we do not have agreement about what is true?'  This places us right in the middle of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  It irrupted out of an attempt by the Holy Roman Empire to establish religious uniformity, i.e., Roman Catholicism.  Protestants revolted by forming the Protestant Union, and all the 'fun' began--German states lost 1/3 of their population in the wars!  The period is far more complicated than just a matter of religion, but in the settlement in 1648, some important affirmations were made that laid a foundation for Western thinking about freedom up until recent times.

First, it was affirmed, a prince could establish the religion of his own state within the Empire (this was an affirmation of a principle already stated in 1555 in the Peace of Augsburg).  Second, if someone held to a religion that was not part of the state religion, he or she could do so publicly during certain hours and privately whenever they wished.  (Of course, by 'religion' was really meant Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist--a sticky situation for those still outside the options!)

Richard Overton: Freedom in a Pre-Enlightenment Age

Indeed, outside the typical options for religion in Europe were Anabaptists, Jews, and Muslims.  One group, the Levellers, was led by a Baptist pastor by the name of Richard Overton (1599-1664).  In 1647, Overton wrote 'An Appeal .. to the Free People' and articulated three categories of rights: liberty for religious and civil practices, life (pertaining to economics, housing, education, sustainable living), and dignity in community (including being free to associate in a church of one's own choosing and vote or petition Parliament despite one's beliefs).  Here is the basis for much of Western thinking about freedom and society.  (And, yes, of course, there are other early precursors to later convictions, such as the Magna Carta's restriction of the King's authority already in 1215!)

The Roots of Western Democracy

Actually, a study such as this is full of fascinating history, philosophy, religion, and political thought.  Glen Stassen, a champion of human rights and a Christian ethicist, offered a chapter on the Christian origins of democracy in the West in his A Thicker Jesus (2012).  He explored the following:

*The Levellers and the notion of 'human rights' and the independence of faith communities from an established Church and civil authority (so also Roger Williams in Rhode Island)
*Reformed Theology's rejection of human sovereignty and the development of constitutional democracy
*The Free Churches' (Anabaptist, Quaker, Baptist) challenge of the lust for power
*Puritans' belief in human sinfulness (which kept its authoritarian inclinations somewhat in check)
*The Dissenters' advocacy of political reform based on a living faith (again checking the lust for power)
*Left-Wing Puritans' focus on the church as a 'gathered community' (voluntary) and on the Holy Spirit guiding persons in mutual discussion (thus recognizing people's right to speak)
*Christians in general and since earliest times learning from the Bible's stories of opposition and deliverance from established authorities doing wrong, such as the Egyptian Pharaoh, most of Israel's kings, the Jewish Sanhedrin, or the Roman Emperor.

Such movements in history connect freedom and democracy to thoroughly Christian movements in the history of Europe and America.  The language of human rights, however, has in our day been severed from Christianity in the West, and a secular version, long in the process of development from the time of Westphalia through the Enlightenment has morphed into something new in our own, Postmodern world.  The results of this story can be followed in Joclyn Maclure and Charles Taylor's Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (2011).

Previously negotiated patterns of life based on notions of freedom are constantly being challenged in this postmodern age.  What Stassen offers is a different narrative of freedom, showing its origins in Christian Europe--and Europe's Christian controversies.  What Maclure and Taylor offer is an analysis of the secular narrative of freedom and the challenges facing religion in the West today.  All this is essential reading for an understanding of the Church and its mission in our day.  If anyone wishes to follow the steady stream of 'attacks' on religious freedom, check out the daily stories on,, and now, especially,

Conscience and Freedom

So much might be said on this large topic.  But consider the change we are witnessing regarding the relationship of conscience and freedom.  Part of the American story is based in non-conformist groups (Puritans, Quakers, Huguenots, e.g.) leaving Europe for reasons of conscience: they were not permitted to practice their religion in the state-established Churches.  The conviction that religion is a matter based on a freedom of conscience is essential to non-conformist groups.  (It was, for that matter, the conviction of the early Church up to the 4th century--since the Church was a minority group and often persecuted.)

Conscience stands at the base of, e.g., the freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech is not what might be termed a 'first order' freedom; it is a secondary freedom, a freedom derived from the belief in the freedom of conscience.  It is a way of fencing or protecting the freedom of conscience, as is also a freedom to worship.  The freedom of conscience is deeply rooted in Christianity, despite hopeless and embarrassing examples to the contrary in Western history.  Despite the often failed practices of Christianity, particularly in Europe, the Christian faith is, at its very core, based in a theology that accepts the importance of conscience: it is a matter of faith or belief, not coercion; it is a matter of a changed heart, not merely external laws; it is a matter of a voluntary, gathered community, not an enforced public exercise; it has a mission, not a military; it witnesses to the truth and does not enforce a politically correct speech on others; and so forth.  Jesus criticised hypocrisy: conscience and belief are the foundation of freedom.

This connection between conscience and freedom, however, is now daily challenged in Western, secular society.  To be sure, the West is conflicted over its understanding of freedom and stands at a point in time when it is trying to figure out what it really believes.  Regularly, Christian freedom is being curtailed while space is being carved out for both the politically correct majority and for non-Christian minorities--such as Islam--even Sharia Law!

This confusion results from the long-standing desire in the secular West to separate freedom and rights from Christian faith (think Voltaire) while also affirming pluralism (especially since the Second World War and the demise of colonialism).  As long as Western nations treat Islam as an 'ethnic minority,' e.g., it will continue in this opposition to Christianity as a religion but affirmation of Islam as an ethnic minority.  This confusion stands at the heart of Barack Obama's refusal to say 'Islamic terrorism'--his invented political and social narrative requires him to ignore the role of religion entirely in the present, world crisis.  Only a secular West will find such a narrative credible.

Yet what of conscience?  We now have daily stories of persons forced to go against their consciences in support of freedom!  Instead of the development of freedoms based on conscience, we now have a notion of freedom that opposes conscience--what we refer to as 'political correctness.'  The Christian baker must bake a cake for a homosexual wedding; the Christian student or lawyer (two recent cases in the UK) must not voice their view that children are better off in a family in which the parents are a married man and woman; students on university campuses must not be allowed to speak freely about their views if they offend a privileged minority or a reigning majority; a person may not witness her Christian faith to someone of a different faith (another recent case in the UK); and so forth.

The root of freedom in a respect for conscience has been exchanged for a new freedom, rooted in the power of a certain class, philosophy, ideology.  Our Postmodern, Western society began with the vestiges of a notion of freedom that took conscience into account and therefore advocated the virtue of tolerance in society.  This has morphed, however, into a notion of freedoms of certain groups over others--tribalism.  Its tenets are secularism opposed to religion, personal freedom opposed to social good, authoritarianism opposed to voluntarism, law opposed to conscience, a notion of the 'good society' that allows no public dissent, a privatization of faith as opposed to faith-based community, and on the list might go.


The severing of the relationship between conscience and freedom is playing out in secular, Western countries today.  It is quite fascinating, albeit horrifying, to watch the emergence of this new social experiment.  In 1973, the US Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, determined that a woman had the right or freedom to seek an abortion (Roe v. Wade).  While this required imagining, against all wisdom, that an unborn child was not a person and therefore had no rights, the decision was still based on a notion of freedom that took conscience into consideration: this was the woman's right because her actions were based on her own convictions, not those of society.  The argument against this sad affair in American history at that time could still be offered on the same grounds of what constituted freedom: if one could argue that the unborn child--no more viable than a spouse on life-support after an accident (though often with more hope)--was nevertheless a human being, one could argue that one's own convictions were limited by the rights of others.  My conscience gives me freedom, but it cannot destroy the rights of someone else.  So much has changed since then!

Today, Western society has severed 'conscience' from its notion of freedom.  Now, a privileged group is seeking every which way to deny rights to persons who do not fit into their tribe.  In particular, Christians are targeted.  Actions approved by the ruling tribe are increasingly required of all despite people's consciences.  The result is that Christians are being shut out of life in public.  Their views on marriage--held by virtually every society since the beginning of recorded history--are now viewed as archaic and harmful--even hateful.  Their practices in business must be regulated by law, not by public patronage (choice).  Their freedom of speech is taken away through punitive measures because it does not conform to the privileged class's views.  Democratic elections (people voting their consciences) are rejected if they do not conform to the tribe's wishes.

Like the French Revolution, which imploded in on itself in one bloody revolution after another, the present experiment in Western freedom has within itself the seed of its own destruction.  Severed from a freedom of conscience, the notion of freedom becomes an anti-freedom, an authoritarianism, a tribal rule that shuts down freedom.  At what point will this experiment finally dissolve into an authoritarian persecution ala Robespierre or violent dominion ala the Emperor Napoleon?  At what point will its endorsement of purely secular narratives have to acknowledge the reality of religion after all--when Sharia Law has been established in Birmingham, England?  At what point will its disregard for nature and creation in traditional views of gender and marriage create the ugly, anti-family, coercive society of Plato's Republic or the non-viable society of self-centred couples co-mingling without the intent or ability to procreate?  (Every European country already is declining with a negative birthrate.)  And how many Christians will be persecuted for refusing to deny their consciences and refusing to sacrifice to the new, conscience-suppressing idol of postmodern tribalism?

Without conscience, the virtue of freedom becomes a vice, a coercive club wielded by the ruling tribe.