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Religious Liberty: Conscience vs. Coercion

Posted By Connie Moody, Wednesday, January 9, 2013

CON´SCIENCE, n. con´shens. [Fr. from L. conscientia, from conscio, to know, to be privy to; con and scio, to know (that is, with knowledge)….] (bold parenthetical note added)

Internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong; or the faculty, power or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them.

C̵OER´CION, n. Restraint, check, particularly by law or authority; compulsion; force. South.[1]

January 16 each year is the anniversary of the ratification of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786). Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute became the foundation for the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Like many of the documents of our founding generation, the Statute affirms the ideals first restored by Christ and upheld by the first century church—the primitive gospel of liberty and the limitations of men ruling over men. At this time the world was reminded of the truth that men were created free and with the capacity to reason and with conscience—the power of principle within us. The world has been witness to scores of individuals of many religious convictions for whom liberty of conscience became more important than their very lives. On the Chain of Christianity®, many apostles, disciples, saints, reformers and our own Pilgrim Fathers suffered persecution and sacrificed their livelihood and lives to shake off "the yoke of antichristian bondage”—the coercive compulsion of the civil authority to force a system of faith, worship, or belief-based actions on its citizens or force their restraint in the practice of the same.

"Be it enacted. . . that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain,
their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge,
or affect their civil capacities.”
Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom

Each individual is entitled by virtue of the Creator to believe and to act on his beliefs be they Christian or Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist, Jewish or Roman Catholic (of course, not all will be saved based on their beliefs—only by His grace). The role of the state is to limit the free exercise of religion only to the extent that such belief-based actions intrude on or inhibit the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of others. It is never the role of the civil government to use its power and authority to force citizens to exercise or support (e.g., government spending of some tax dollars) a religion or to unduly limit the exercise of one’s beliefs.

Christianity, not the Virginia Statute, originally gave this idea of individual religious liberty to the world and, thus, to all religions in nations embracing the principle. Of all people, then, the followers of Christ should best guard and steward it—they must live it, for "to reach the essence of liberty, and certainly to secure its blessings in co-operative living, choice must be exercised in conformity with moral principles. There must be a sense of personal responsibility, of self-restraint, and therefore of self-government…. The blessing of liberty, which political government may safeguard or destroy but can never itself provide, are therefore intimately connected with personal belief in, and practice of, Christian doctrine.” (Felix Morely, in T&L, p. 236)

What are we, as heirs to His Spirit of Liberty, doing to actively confess the faith and walk as children of Light in liberty of conscience? How are we actively standing against civil compulsion to violate conscience?

Remember, doing what is right and not doing what is wrong OR doing what is wrong and not doing what is right requires the consent of conscience. "My consent (active or tacit) is my title to keeping conscience in God’s will.” (T&L, p. 232)

For more on this topic, please see Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History: The Principle Approach, pp. 224-239.

Read more about religious liberty and the separation of church and state from a recent post at William J. Federer's American Minute. Click here. also has resources for teaching about Religious Liberty (especially regarding students’ rights in public schools),

[1] Webster, N. (2006). An American Dictionary of the English Language, facsimile copy of the 1828 edition. Chesapeake, VA: Foundation for American Christian Education.

Tags:  coercion  conscience  religious liberty  Thomas Jefferson  Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom 

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Susan Kennedy says...
Posted Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Vital: "There must be a sense of personal responsibility, of self-restraint, and therefore of self-government...." Thank you for this article.
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