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Religious Liberty

Religious liberty is only a product of religious understanding, growth, and faith. If Christians lose their freedom, they will only have themselves to blame, and their indifference to the Author of true liberty, the Lord our King.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991], 51-55).

One of the great moments of history occurred at the time of the Reformation, but its significance was too little appreciated then, and its implications were not developed. Frederick III, or Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), was Elector of Saxony (1486–1525). He founded the university, Wittenberg, where both Martin Luther and Melanchthon taught. Luther and the Elector may never have met. Although Frederick gradually came to accept certain Lutheran doctrines, he remained a Catholic to the end. His long protection of Luther was not motivated by agreement. What were his motives?

At this distance, it is not easy to say. Certainly, if we limit it to self-interest, we are distorting history. True, there were problems of jurisdiction. The Elector’s area, Thuringia and Saxony, was a domain one-ninth the size of England. In it were a hundred different monasteries, and parts of six different bishoprics. Five of the bishops lived outside the Elector’s realm. Thus, a different law prevailed for these ecclesiastical domains. It would be easy to conclude that self-interest led Frederick the Wise to defend Luther: he could then control the church as easily as the state if his were a unified realm.

Such a conclusion presupposes a desire by Frederick to control Luther, something he did not do. Luther was more ready for a magisterial power in the church than was Frederick. Frederick protected Luther; he did not seek to control him. This point is all the more important when we recognize their religious differences.

The protection, however, went both ways. In a letter of 1522, cited by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man, Luther at a critical point, offered the Elector his protection. He wrote:

This is written to Your Grace that Your Grace may know I am coming to Wittenberg under a much higher protection than the Prince-Elector’s. I have no mind to ask for Your Grace’s protection; nay, I hold that I could protect Your Grace more than he could protect me. Moreover, if I knew that your Grace could and would protect me, I would not come. In this, no sword can direct nor help; God alone must act in this matter, without all care and seeking.
Therefore he who believes most will protect most; and because I feel that Your Grace is still weak in the faith, I cannot by any means think of Your Grace as the man who could protect or save me.

“Protection” was thus made a theological fact. In terms of Deuteronomy 28, it was grounded in God’s blessing on faith and obedience. As Rosenstock-Huessy noted so incisively, “Thomas Paine offering George Washington his protection would seem ridiculous.” Both the protection and the freedom which concerned Frederick III and Luther had become theological facts. A Catholic prince and a Protestant reformer had come together to establish an important Christian relationship, one with deep Biblical roots, and long strands in church history, which established a fact too little appreciated in the days that followed.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution represents a development of this faith. This amendment was added at the insistence of the clergy. The amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for a redress of grievances.” We miss the point of this law if we fail to note that each of the original ten amendments, as well as subsequent ones, is a single body of thought and law, a unified whole, a single subject. We are not talking about three, four, or five things here (freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, or petition), nor one (freedom). After all, other amendments deal with freedom as well, and, if freedom were the key legal concept, the first five amendments could have been made one amendment.

The unifying fact in the First Amendment is a man’s immunity in his faith and beliefs: the freedom to express his beliefs in religious worship, in speech, press, assembly, and petition. This law was framed by colonial men for whom these things were matters of faith and principle. There was therefore for them a necessary unity in this statement: instead of five rights they saw one fact. Their separation today means their diminution. It means also the steady decline of freedom in every aspect of the First Amendment.

Thus, the purpose of the First Amendment was to bar the state from entrance into, or powers over, the principled or religious stand and expressions of law-abiding men in worship, instruction, speech, publication, assembly, and petition. When Protestant Luther said to Catholic Elector-Prince Frederick III that he, Luther, was Frederick’s protection in his (Luther’s) free and independent move and expression of faith, and Frederick accepted that fact, and acted on it, a major step was taken. Freedom of religion was then not a privilege created and granted by the state, but rather something radically different. It meant rather the protection of the state by the freedom of faith. The stronger and more faithful that free exercise of faith, the greater the protection of the state. As Luther audaciously declared, “He who believes most will protect most.” The stronger that free faith is, the stronger the state and society.

The freedom of religion as earlier Americans understood it, meant that the ministry of grace had a Levitical or instructional duty to set forth the counsel of God for every area of life. The church was separate from the state, but not religion. Through the ministry of instruction, God’s law-word concerning every area of life and thought was to be set forth.

Decline set in when the church limited the scope of God’s Word to the church, and when the state began to extend its powers over the family, the school, economics, and more. Today, current court cases see claims by state agencies which would entirely eliminate the First Amendment immunities for religion.

This dereliction of the press in this situation is particularly distressing. The press itself has been the target of various court decisions which seriously curtail or limit the freedom of the press, or, at the very least, place it under a cloud. Of course, all these decisions have a “good” purpose; every restriction placed upon freedom claims a good cause, to curtail or restrain abuses. All serve rather as restraints upon good motives, not evil ones. Evil places no value on, nor attention to, restraints; criminal codes already provide a legitimate recourse against the evil misuse of freedom. Attempts to restrain pornography and libel have had minimal results; the law-breaker is a specialist in circumventing the law, whereas the legitimate publication feels the restraints which the law-breaker is impervious to.

Moreover, laws seldom are limited to the purpose of the legislators. As Charles Curtis noted in A Better Theory of Legal Interpretation, “Language, at any rate in legal documents, does not fix meaning. It circumscribes meaning. Legal interpretation is concerned, not with the meaning of words, but only with their boundaries.” Those boundaries are almost always extended to unrecognizable limits. As a result, attempts to eliminate “abuses” in religion or press wind up creating new and worse abuses of power by the state.

The press has been defending itself from the encroachments of statism, but on weak and limited grounds. It limits its First Amendment concern too often to four words thereof, and it neglects the portion which cites free exercise of religion. All over the United States, churches, Christian schools, and parents and children have been on trial. The attacks have come from a variety of state agencies, especially departments of education, zoning, welfare, and the like. Federal attacks have come from the Internal Revenue Service, the Labor Department, the National Labor Relations Board, the White House, and more. The press has given minimal attention to these things, although they represent a major reversal of American policy. The press has become a commercial enterprise as part of large conglomerate enterprises reaching into a variety of manufacturing areas, all valid efforts, but, in the process, it has forgotten the religious nature of its immunity. The freedom it has enjoyed has not been a federal grant but a religious principle. The change of its status is due to a shift in faith.

If man’s faith is in the state, then the state is the protector of man’s freedom, and the author thereof. Then, in every area, we are dependent upon the state: the state giveth, and the state taketh away: blessed be the name of the state!

The national favorite of the United States, “America,” still celebrates in song an older and theocratic faith. The last stanza of Rev. Samuel Smith’s song (1832), declares:

Our father’s God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light:
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King.

Protection, in this theocratic perspective, is not by state controls, but by the might of the “Great God” who is “our King.” The brightness of the land is not in regulatory agencies but in “freedom’s holy light.” This phrase is an echo of the premise which undergirds the First Amendment, the relationship of freedom to faith.

But this is not all. Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution requires an oath of office from the president. Such an oath is now a meaningless and even blasphemous fact. However, to the framers of the Constitution, an oath was a Biblical fact. To them, an oath was, first, a covenant fact, i.e., of a covenant between the state and God, and second, a theocratic fact, an oath of loyalty to the sovereign. In the Constitutional Convention, an objection was actually made to adding anything to the oath such as “and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The fact of an oath, Wilson held, made this addition unnecessary; it was, however, still retained. Third, an oath invoked the covenant blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience, as declared in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. An oath thus invokes a judgment from God rather than man as the basic judgment. It sees God, not the state, as the Author of all blessings, including liberty.

Today, we are in a time of judgment, because men have sought, all over the world, both freedom and blessings from the state rather than from God our King. As a result they have gained slavery and curses.

In the humanistic, statist conception of things, freedom is not a privilege and a blessing from and under God, but either a human right, or a state grant. Man the sinner, however, is a slave, and his freedom is in essence a freedom to sin. The love of slavery has more clearly marked human history than the love of freedom. Mankind has largely been in chains throughout history, because men have preferred security to freedom. Men have often rebelled against the limitations imposed by slavery, but even more against the responsibilities imposed by freedom.

Freedom is not a natural fact but a religious principle, and the decline of freedom is an aspect of the rise of false faiths, false forms of “Christianity,” as well as other varieties of faith.

This century has seen, moreover, the divorce of freedom from faith, with great damage and decay on both sides.

When Luther offered his protection to the Elector Frederick, he had just come out of hiding at the peril of his life. His reappearance was an act of faith, and one which Frederick matched.

For all too long, those who have believed the most have been Marxists, Keynesians, fascists, and humanists generally. Their “freedom” has been slavery, for “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10). Now, however, as the faith of Christians strengthens, battles are underway for the freedom of Christian schools, churches, and families. Religious liberty is only a product of religious understanding, growth, and faith. If Christians lose their freedom, they will only have themselves to blame, and their indifference to the Author of true liberty, the Lord our King. (May, 1980)

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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