An irony of the Protestant Reformation which commenced 500 years ago this month is that a movement founded on the absolute freedom of conscience resulted in the absolute right of a ruler to determine the religion of his or her subjects. British professor Alec Ryrie in his recent publication “Protestants” lists the three essential qualities of basic Protestantism. The first is free inquiry, meaning that the individual believer’s conscience is answerable only to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures, and especially not to the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy. The second is democracy, meaning that believers are free to challenge any authority — Pope and bishops included — who violates the supremacy of the individual conscience. And the third is apoliticism (his word), meaning that a subject or a citizen must be allowed to live his or her life as he or she sees fit without civil or ecclesiastical interference. Thus, Protestantism began as a justification and a celebration of individuality, freedom of conscience and limited church and civil government.
Early on, however, Protestantism, deprived of the international authority of the Roman Church, found itself under the local authority of civil rulers. Rejecting universal papal rule, Protestants were forced to abide by the religious inclinations of local princes and dukes. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 brought a temporary end to the fighting between Lutherans and Catholics within the Holy Roman Empire by establishing the principle “Cuius regio, eius religio,” meaning “Whose region, his religion.” Each German prince in the empire could choose to practice either Lutheranism or Catholicism and believers within each prince’s domain would be obliged to follow the faith of their leader. Families of either denomination were given a brief interlude to move to a German state practicing their particular faith. Other Protestant denominations, such as Calvinism and the Anabaptists, were not included in this civil agreement resulting a hundred years later in the Thirty Years War, which finalized religious divisions within Europe through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Ironically, a religious revolt based on the freedom of the individual conscience led to the union of conscience with civil law, the union of religion with nationality, the union of church with state. After another hundred years, in 1789, the new American constitution would allow a restoration of civic independence for the individual conscience.
It probably would be reading too much into Jesus’ celebrated phrase, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” to find therein a justification for the separation of church and state. But Jesus’ quick, clever response to the insincere query of the Pharisees does hint at the pre-Reformation notion that Church and state should, ideally, operate independently but respectfully of one another. St. Augustine had developed his “Two Kingdoms” theology along this line. The American founders, stung by two centuries of European religious wars, famously decreed: “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 the Government for a redress of grievances.” The new American nation would favor no particular religious enterprise but neither would it hinder in any way the individual’s personal exercise of any religious practices. The framers of the Constitution resolutely rejected the establishment of one countrywide church for the new nation, but they equally affirmed the unhindered ability of individual citizens to practice their religious inclinations. Religion freely practiced was clearly expected to be part of American life just as surely as were free speech, free press, free assembly and the free redress of grievances. That religious practice was mentioned first among America’s constitutional freedoms should not be overlooked. Secular America must not ignore the full meaning of the religious considerations deliberately written into the Constitution by the founders. Full freedom of religion implies the full exercise of religion.
The Biblical religion of the western world has always demanded interior faith convictions expressed through practical activities. Helping orphans and widows is as integral to true religion as are liturgy and prayer. Such public and private elements of religion must be equally protected and even encouraged by civil law. Religion is not just what goes on in church. Religion is not just worship. Religion is family, citizenship, business, education, art and science. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Every aspect of creation has religious demands and believers must be fully free to live out these demands in their daily lives.