The individual freedoms protected in this nation are our most cherished cultural heritage. From John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” to Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man,” the appropriate role of government in preserving freedoms of conscience and morality was a pressing topic for English and American philosophers. On the shoulder of these political philosophers, we can enjoy whichever congregations we choose, can associate with whomever we want and can even publish scathing reviews of universities in university newspapers.
This level of self-sovereignty that the United States enjoys is coveted by many. Nations throughout history have been inspired by our political theory, and we still attract countless immigrants who want to share in our cultural riches.
From British common law to the Magna Carta, to religious toleration in the American colonies and the establishment of our constitution, the Anglo-American sphere revolutionized individual sovereignty. Think of the ways we now enjoy the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition which are protected within the First Amendment. Muhammed Ali was able to be a conscientious objector, we give tax exemptions to churches and Native American churches are able to even use some illegal substances for worship. These seem like victories in toleration of other beliefs, but I wonder if Jefferson, Madison and Paine would be happy with these religious “exemptions.”
Jefferson, for example, did not take to Locke’s use of the word “toleration” and instead preferred “religious freedom.” This was to imply that a person’s right to conscience was not something which the government had any power to limit in the first place. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he stated, “Our rulers can have authority over our natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”
The entire crux of the political belief for these American founders was this—that the “legitimate powers of government” can only limit injurious acts. The government of our day, which acts as a house-mother reprimanding its constituents on right and wrong, would be a terrible sight for Jefferson’s eyes.
In their times, Jefferson and Paine particularly struggled with the public perception of their religious beliefs. They were both Deists in their own ways, and like many of our founding fathers, they had to fight off critics who slandered them as Atheists. To put it simply, they believed in individualistic and rational examination of religious ethical questions, and not Christian or any other dogmatic proscription.
Now this might not even be considered “religious” today, and is very similar to the popular perspective encompassing both believers and non-believers. What sort of protections could be offered for Jefferson and Paine if they had found belief in using DMT or peyote, or conscientious objection to the draft or whatever was in line with their search for truth? Unlike followers of Christianity, Islam or other religions, a Deist doesn’t have a organized religious body with which to leverage their rights. A Deist has only their conscience and the various ethical wisdoms which he explores in the philosophies of the world. This personal, internal spring of virtue is most vital for the Deist.
Perhaps society wasn’t ready to adopt a radical freedom of conscience in 1789 with our Bill of Rights, but we live in a time when everyone is Deist in many ways. Religiosity surveys show the majority believe in a very distant and non-intervening god—similar to a Deist conception. We live in a religiously pluralistic world, where the teachings of Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed blend and reflect at every turn.
The “Nones” are on the rise: those who may have spiritual beliefs, but don’t ascribe to any religion in particular. Because of the shrinking influence of organized religion in the last century, more than before we require a protected freedom of conscience.
A more bravely and explicitly legislated liberty would ensure our right to act in a way in accordance with our own moral compass. How empowering it would be to see each person as one’s own church—to smoke whatever, say whatever and act however one will by the guidance of one’s own ethical vision.
This situation where only organized and state-recognized religious institutions can enable particular rights is precisely what our most visionary founders would not have wanted. I wonder how differently our nation would have developed if each individual’s ethical and spiritual sovereignty were more explicitly recognized, and our ability to pursue our idea of right and wrong were surely protected.
Perhaps it was a shame that Madison’s initial draft of the First Amendment wasn’t accepted as was: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”