Freedom and religion, a love-hate relationship

part three of “Four Essays on Religion and Freedom “ – Dick Wursten 2019, translated from the Dutch

previous: Religion, a genealogical investigation
next: The Imperialism of the Religious Identity Marker

To understand what the human right of “freedom of religion” is actually about 1), we must go back in time. Man is a thoroughly historical being and so are the epiphenomena he creates (culture, religion, society). Only through this genealogical path can you try to figure out what it is/was actually about. The right to freedom of religion stems from the time when religion was ubiquitous, everywhere and nowhere, inevitable and omnipotent. Immediately you sense that that (freedom) right is first and foremost a matter of “being freed from the pressure that a pervasive, state-supported, religious institution exerts on a person (or a group of people).” It is therefore in circles of persecuted minority groups that at some point the realization dawned that ostracism is not good for anyone socially. There the idea began to take root that perhaps the religious issue should be solved “differently” than by an alliance of “church and state,” plural or otherwise. The idea of a Wall of Separation was born. The element of liberation (i.e., from the dominant power of one religious institution that interferes with everything, often via the detour of government support, i.e. established religion) is, I believe, quintessential in order to understand the spirit behind the right to religious freedom. In this chapter, I try to evoke that intense sense of liberation that accompanies the birth of religious freedom.

Let’s get out of here…

So I invite you to follow me, back in time. First we have to feel (yes, I’m sorry, it’s something ‘reason’ can’t understand) what it means when ‘one religious language game’ is dominant, i.e. when one religious institution determines your entire vision and experience of life (individually and collectively), without you even realizing it. How nice, and how oppressive at the same time. The leitmotif  in this chapter will be the term ‘exodus’. Away, let’s get out of here… It is not forbidden to think of the short text by Franz Kafka: Der Aufbruch, but you can also hear it with the emotional value of the biblical language itself:  Exodus  is the name of the second book of the Bible and refers to the story of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt led by Moses. At the same time it is a chiffre,  a metaphor that refers to a certain existential condition, which is an important part of the Jewish and Christian religious experience: the experience of liberation, redemption, salvation. Listen:

[listen online, with subs:]

It is December 6, 1716, the second Sunday of Advent. In Weimar’s castle church,2 the court is preparing for Sunday’s cantata. On the rood loft, high above the churchgoers, a small group of musicians, four singers and three instrumentalists, begin to play. Court poet Salomon Franck wrote the text for Sunday’s cantata. He has condensed the words from the Gospel reading (about the ‘coming of the Son of Man in glory’ and that we must ‘always be ready’) into a singable text, a kind of mini-sermon in rhyme. ‘ Pray and watch ‘ is the call that first descends from on high to the churchgoers. Then the contralto also takes the floor and asks: ‘ When will that day arrive, when we can leave the Egypt of this world. Oh, let us quickly flee Sodom before the fire engulfs us… ‘ The composer on duty was the young Johann Sebastian Bach, the piece of music is catalogued under the number BWV 70a, Wachet, betet .

To the non-biblically initiated, the rhetoric and imagery may not be immediately obvious, but to the average churchgoer of that time, it was as familiar as Jay-Z’s language is to contemporary hip-hoppers. The believers in Weimar (N.B. only the courtiers were present) knew what they were supposed to be thinking, and Bach knew exactly what feelings to evoke with those words. They knew what “Egypt” stood for, what “Sodom” referred to, and in which “fire” it was all about. And, no matter how concrete the call to leave, to flee, might sound, no one would make any preparations to actually go on a journey. People lived their faith in a language field where biblical stories were blueprints for spiritual life and where geographical locations referred to spiritual ‘states of affairs’.


In the Bible, ‘Egypt’ is the land of slavery and oppression from which God freed his people ‘with a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ under the leadership of Moses, the ‘exodus story’ can be found in the Bible book of the same name. This is still recited annually by religious Jews during the Passover meal (Jewish Easter). That quasi-historical reference was not essential for Bach’s contemporaries, and certainly not that there were still real Passover-celebrating Jews. They were trained to understand Egypt spiritually. Egypt is a ‘symbol’ for ‘the slavery of man under sin’. The following applies to such a story: read what it says, but remember that it is about something else. In fact, realize that it is probably ‘about you’. Tua res agitur is a favorite turn in many biblical meditations. The exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt then refers to the ‘redemption from the power of sin’ that was accomplished by Christ when he rose from the dead (Christian Easter). It is really no coincidence that the Passover meal was Jesus’ last supper. In Bach’s time people never tired of highlighting the parallels between the two. In addition, it was of course mainly about the appropriation of the meaning of that event by faith. This happened entirely in Luther’s spirit through word and music. What had to be believed with the mind received support from the mind that was played by the musical interpretation. The vision on life, the philosophy of life, was colored with biblical shades and the own life story was told using biblical templates. Stories of faith had an admonishing, illuminating, revealing, confrontational, hopeful, exemplary effect. Everything was possible, as long as it was constructive. That in itself was not new, that is how the church had always done it. For Christians, the Bible was, in addition to God’s Word (for many people this was self-evident, which had few concrete consequences), above all a book full of exemplary stories. The tip to read that book this way is also given in the Bible itself ( 2 Timothy 3:16 ). And that’s how Christians still read it. And new applications are always emerging. When, a few centuries after Bach, the black population of the US is urged by Dr. Martin Luther King to demand their rights, they sing the song about Moses, who was sent to Pharaoh ( Go down, Moses… and tell Pharaoh: Let my people go! ). They do the same thing as Salomon Franck, albeit with a different application.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Something similar applies to ‘Sodom’, that other image that Franck cites. This city, along with twin city Gomorrah, includes abhorrent sinful behavior. Any place, any society, can become a ‘Sodom’. The fact that a film and TV series about the mafia in Naples is called ‘Gomorrah’ , besides a play on words with the name ‘Camorra’, is also a late example of how this story has been read as a mirror story for thousands of years  and in the process can take on different meanings, all the time. The exact interpretation of wrongdoing therefore changes with time and circumstance. In the story itself, it is not clear what exactly is wrong in the city, except that it must be very bad. That is the strength of the story. With the “sin of Sodom,” you can go in any direction. And that is what has been done. One of the most questionable interpretations has made a name for itself as a concept in criminal law: sodomy (anal sex). In case you don’t know the story: God is so outraged at what people are doing to each other there, the injustice, that he wants to destroy (“turn over” in Biblical language) those cities. He does so with fire and brimstone. The patriarch Abraham pleads for clemency, but God does not allow himself to be tempted. It’s too bad, what happens there. Tipped off by two young men (messengers of God, angels), Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family flee the city just in time. They escape destruction. During the flight, Lot’s wife looks back one last time (nostalgic? curious? fascinated? You may fill in the blanks yourself), a look that she has to pay dearly for, because, as in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, salvation was conditional, the condition being: “don’t look back!”. She turns into a pillar of salt. Well, you probably know the story, and if not, you can read it in Genesis 19. Solomon Franck, with this short aria, through the reference to Egypt and Sodom, and of course aided by the music of Bach, has firmly emphasized the urgency of the call “to be ready for the coming of Christ”.

Stories in a holy book: no ordinary texts

Both Bible stories touched on by Franck are therefore not factual (correct or incorrect) accounts of historical events (then, there, that happened), but stories that have become increasingly rich in meaning as they are told. The words and images in it have become ‘thick’ words. The stronger the story and the longer it is told, the more layers of meaning will attach to the story and the more complex the connection with other stories from the same tradition becomes. You will regularly encounter these stories, especially the story of the ‘exodus’, in this chapter on religious freedom. However, I didn’t set the example just for that reason. Also in the search for ‘what religion is actually about’ it is essential to have a sense of what it means when people call a book a ‘holy book’. This has major consequences for hermeneutics (the doctrine of interpretation) and for the way in which people construct their own identity. For Christians, the Bible is more than an ordinary text, or more precisely: something other than an ordinary text. The literal historical reference is not what most believers are primarily interested in. It is essential for them that these stories are inspired, that is, charged with ‘spiritual meaning’. This is important. Regardless of the theological doctrine that may be behind this and which one may or may not believe, one expects something from those texts. And if that spiritual meaning is not immediately apparent on a first reading – and that is often the case – then this is not a signal for readers to write off the Bible, but an incentive to do better, differently. read. That is why allegorical interpretation of Scripture has become so popular within Christianity. It has been handed down along with the texts since ancient times. Allegoresis means that something actually means something different than what it says at first glance. Something seemingly trivial can have a deep meaning. Things that seem very ordinary (numbers, names, places, animals) actually ‘stand for something else’. Apparently straightforward narratives take on a double meaning. Often it is spiritual. All those battles in the Bible, for example, between the armies of the kings of Israel and the Canaanites, Midianites or Amalekites or whatever they may be called. If those are just historical accounts, why should we read them? Could they possibly have a hidden meaning? And before you know it, those battles become descriptions of the struggle between the power of good and evil, Lord of the Rings genre, or allegories for the struggle that rages in the soul of every man between his good and evil inclinations, or manifestos for opposing the power of evil. And it must be said: many of those stories are told in the Bible itself in such a way that a more than historical-literal interpretation is available. The exodus story (exodus, passage through the sea, desert journey, trials): anyone who has a little sense of language and story already feels that these are ‘mirror stories’: look into them and learn what you know about life, yourself. Reading biblical stories in this way provides food for thought. Typological interpretations are also very useful here. A story is told as taking place in period A, but the actual meaning comes to light in period A’ and/or A” and A”’…) where the figure of Christ always plays a key role, of course. What happens to David is a ‘foreshadowing’ of what happens to ‘the great Son of David’ (Christ). The juxtaposition of Bible stories through this supposed connection was the religious-pedagogical tool par excellence. A medieval ‘Poor Bible’, in which images of stories from the Old and New Testament that are typologically or allegorically connected, are depicted next to each other, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of this creative reading method. The same applies to the interpretation of religious paintings, from the very earliest to well into modern times. In the introductory paragraph of this chapter we saw that hermeneutic method at work in the way in which the original story about the exodus from the ‘house of slavery in Egypt’ is applied to other types of slavery, including the way in which people are then liberated from it.

Hermeneutical inventiveness: allegory

Before Luther tied theological doctrine to the Bible with his Scripture principle, this form of hermeneutical inventiveness was very popular. The more inventive the better. Those who excelled in this were highly respected and loved. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, is admired to this day for his allegorical series of sermons on the Song of Songs, in which he very creatively reads a collection of worldly songs of desire with a strong erotic connotation, as if they were mystical texts that explain in secret language the great all kinds of things can happen when Christ is the bridegroom of the soul. “I did not attempt to give an explanation, but I sought and found an opportunity to say that which delights the heart” (said Bernard of Clairvaux about this method of preaching). For theology (doctrine regarding God) it did not really matter what meaning you thought you found or did not find in a Bible story. That doctrine was already established. As long as it was edifying and remained within the boundaries of church doctrine. Church teaching contained the complete content of God’s revelation. Nothing needed to be added to that, and nothing could be taken away from it. The Bible only had to, could, illustrate that. The criterion of a successful exegesis was therefore not literary-historical correctness, but agreement with church teaching and ‘whether it worked’. Some complained that allegorical applications were sometimes far-fetched. It also sometimes seemed that interpreters were more concerned with impressing with their exegetical feats than with the seriousness of the message. But that was nothing more than grumbling.

However, when Luther elevates the Bible to the sole source and standard of faith, things suddenly become very different. After all, the explanation of the book must not only be constructive, it must also reveal the truth about God; and to test opinions expressed about it. Biblical exegesis must now generate the true doctrine (and no other). No room for arbitrariness. There is suddenly a need for methodological rigor and a consistent theory of interpretation. How else are you supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff? The battle for the only correct interpretation of Bible texts started here and has never ended since. So that’s an end to the infinitely rich, multicolored and ambiguous allegory. Uniformity and clarity was from now on the watchword. The principle of biblicism can be found here. This led to an enormous boost in historical-literary Bible research. However, without a ‘spiritual’ meaning that could be read into the Bible stories through allegory, many Old Testament stories quickly lost their importance. Now they became ‘historical stories’ about other people in another time. The miraculous elements suddenly started to stand out much more, and gradually became more problematic. In an allegorical interpretation it does not matter whether the sun stands still for a moment to defeat the enemy, on the contrary. Something like that attracts attention and offers opportunities for application (‘See how merciful God is. Even if everyone says: ‘It’s too late, oh, too late for good’, He still gives you time, extra time, probation…’). Such details are disturbing in a historical factual account, especially when the historical and natural sciences begin to develop. Yet it was the loss of meaning that was initially felt most strongly. The ‘Old Testament’ in particular was in danger of becoming an old book, from another people, and another religion (which of course it is). It would go too far to show how the Protestant tradition tries to compensate for this by focusing on the historical development of the idea of ​​God, the history of salvation. In practice, however, the blood flows where it cannot go and the allegorical method, which Luther had put out at the front door, was quickly brought in through the back door. Preachers, who had to entertain the people for an hour every Sunday from the pulpit and felt the need to do more than just explain things, even ensured that the allegorical method soon regained its place of honor in the church. Bach’s cantata texts testify to this.

Biblical texts as evidence for the doctrine

However, that does not alter the fact that when it came to determining the true doctrine about God or answering essential questions of life, the Bible was supposed to provide clarity. So the exegesis had to be verifiable and the outcome verifiable. The interpreter had to show in a systematically responsible manner what doctrine the Bible produces (e.g. about the sacraments, or about the way in which the church should be governed) and at the same time also test and refute deviations from it against the same Bible. The Holy Scripture not only contained the true doctrine (The Revelation of God, they liked to call it), but was also the criterion for distinguishing between truth and lie in this area. As I tried to show in the previous chapter, in the period of the Reformation people almost immediately got stuck in this circular reasoning. The claim (to be the source and standard of God’s revelation) was too ambitious for the Bible, because that book, consisting of 66 (or 72) different books, needed an enormous amount of interpretation and interpretation to even be understood as a consistent whole. . So a lot of human work, and therefore a lot of chance of disagreements. Then I leave undiscussed the logical tension inherent in the statement that one and the same text must be both the source and standard of its own meaning. Whatever you think about it, the fact is that ‘The Reformation’ immediately split into countless movements. Each movement had its own internally consistent doctrine and this was of course based on the book, just like that of those they opposed. No one had a criterion that could not also be questioned on the basis of that sacred Book. Nicholas Boileau rightly stated that ‘ if you put aside the Church’s magisterium, every Protestant becomes a pope, with the Bible in his hand ‘. After Luther, ordinary believers had more ‘freedom to learn’ than any pope ever had.

Divided by Faith

Those who realized this and also tried to valorize that insight for church practice were exceptions. After all, critics of extreme views (ie interpretations that were not mainstream) were convinced that they were the ones who interpreted the Bible correctly, rather than the others. Almost everyone was of the opinion that it would be a matter of studying, reasoning, discussing until you see nothing, and then the others would realize that they were wrong and that  we were right. The reverse was also theoretically possible, but rarely occurred in practice. If this did not work, the conclusion could only be that the others must be seeing blind and the devil could well be behind this. The voices of people like Sebastiaan Castellio and Dirk Coornhert, to limit myself to two well-known sixteenth century protest voices that called for moderation and acceptance of internal plurality, remained that of those crying in the desert (to use another Biblical metaphor). They felt that fundamental differences of opinion about ‘what exactly God is about’ and ‘how we should shape the service of God’ were not so much due to a lack of Bible study, but rather were activated by it and continued by further Bible study would not be solved, but strengthened. It was in vain. The religious identities closed, sought and found support from political rulers, and entrenched themselves theologically in scholastic strongholds. Thus, the interpretation and design of the Christian religion became the dividing principle of Europe. Divided by Faith , as the title of Benjamin Kaplan’s well-known book about this period is, or in the same vein, Diarmaid McCulloch’s bestseller: Reformation, Europe’s house divided. At the end of the religious wars, church and state were even more strictly intertwined than before, but now there were two in one church .options. That is to say: Nominally everyone in Europe was still Christian (unless you were Muslim or Jew). But as a Christian you were now Roman Catholic or Protestant. And within the latter group, an additional fork emerged in the sixteenth century: You were either ‘Evangelical’ (= Lutheran) or ‘Reformed/Reformed’ (= church form based on ideas of Jean Calvin). There was no real peace (the theologians’ struggle continued, but now without the armed variant) and it was not very satisfying either, both spiritually and intellectually. To profess every Sunday that the ‘Holy Church is one’, while it clearly is not, is a bit embarrassing. In addition, there is the experience that what now calls itself ‘the holy Church’, even after the Reformation, continues to fall short of the ideal image. Over time, every new Protestant church that had itself become the established church ( Established Church is the technical term for the privileged church in a certain territory) had to deal with this. Internal contestation was the result. The break kept rehearsing. And the harder people resisted it, the worse it became. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice , protesting Christians who rely on the Bible have started a process that they can no longer stop. People left Egypt and felt liberated, but that often did not last for a short time. The new leaders (whether they were called bishop or pastor or pastor or brother, it didn’t matter) also turned out to be not insensitive to honor and power and the ‘brothers and sisters in the Lord’, who formed the new ‘communion of saints’ , were mainly ordinary people with their big, but also their small sides. Over time, most of them resigned themselves to the status quo, whether or not longing for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’. At the same time, you could be sure that after some time the unrest would awaken again. Once the Bible has been given divine authority within a group of people and you state that its contents can in principle be understood by every member of the community ( Christianity’s dangerous idea, you remember, Alister McGrath), the community that gathers around that book will be disturbed by that book. After all, the life of the individual and of the group can always be improved, and texts can always be understood differently, or framed differently, or connected with other texts, or played off against other texts, or canceled out against each other. There are also always other texts available that you can bring into a debate, etc. There is no end to text interpretation. The personalization of the faith relationship, which was partly inspired by Luther’s strongly autobiographical interpretation of what he believed to be the core of faith, almost always gave such discussions an existential character. This greatly increased the risk of church-rupturing effects. People could argue about anything. Every detail could become a ‘shibboleth’, a mark with which you could distinguish the true from the false church. The method of baptismal administration, the clothing of the pastor, the songs that were sung (or not sung), the layout of the church building, the space that was given to new revelations, the role of women, etc. These were really not always theologically complex issues such as the view of God’s eternal counsels (predestination) in which the young Reformed Church in the Netherlands became entangled at the beginning of the seventeenth century, which split the church apart. That was rather exceptional.

Tolerance if there is no other option

It is clear that in this Europe that had sought pacification since 1555 (Augsburg) through a division into mono-denominational states and states, there were larger movements that were of the opinion that the official church – no matter what denomination – was actually inadequate. and everything had to be done over again, were given little room to maneuver. Those who felt that the ‘Protestant church’ under which they belonged had not yet been ‘really reformed’, or had not yet been reformed enough, and who made this openly known, faced severe repression. The room for discussion, even within Protestant churches, was often very limited. And even though the secular power was not always eager to carry out the wishes of the spiritual power (= the privileged church), they usually got their way. After all, secular leaders primarily strove for social peace and could ignore church disputes breaking out like a toothache. Church leaders and civil authorities often conspired to neutralize malcontents and troublemakers (as they often called people who held a different opinion). Believers who did not give in, even under pressure and threats, eventually sought refuge elsewhere. For example, they took matters into their own hands and came together in non-church or fringe groups, where they sought to satisfy their spiritual hunger on their own. It is the time of the conventicles , the groups that strive for the conversion of the heart in a small circle of the pious, the churches within the church. Indifference also reached great proportions. By the mid-seventeenth century, in certain parts of Holland and Utrecht, less than half of the inhabitants were affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. On mainland Europe, conflicts were usually limited to intra-church quarrels, which were sometimes fought to the extreme. Theologians in particular excelled in consistent reasoning (scholastic theology), resulting in school and party formation. Because it was about ‘God and eternal well-being’, they did not shy away from using big words when combating other people’s views. This occupational disease is called Rabies theologorum . It arises when you unleash great rational thinking power on a matter that is by definition not rational. For a time it could also paralyze church life and divide a religious community. The government tried to limit church discussions to university classrooms and pulpits as much as possible, so that public order was not disrupted. In this way, the state hoped to have tamed the restless sides of the religious impulse after 1648. Territorialization, one-region-one-religion, and the rest lay low: a pacification imposed from above. The state (the monarch) subjects the church to his will. If he is Lutheran, then so are his subjects. With the exception of the Dutch republic (and France until the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685), you could only have civil rights in Europe if you followed the religion of the monarch and therefore at least apparently submitted to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Very often this meant compulsory participation in religious services. Freedom of conscience was the maximum that could be achieved in 1648. This means that people on the forum internum were free, they could personally choose the extra-territorial version of Christianity (which was no longer punishable). He could even curse God in his heart, but he better not repeat such things in the public forum . The punishment for blasphemy was not lenient. The same applies to people of other faiths. After a while, they were usually left alone, even when they started visiting each other and secretly organizing worship services. However, they had to keep it ‘indoors’, not visible, not audible on the street. This practice was called ‘blindfolding’. Even in the Dutch Republic, where there was no compulsory religion, only a privileged one, people did not go very far in the beginning in ‘tolerating’ everything that was not Reformed. Even the former comrades in the fight against Rome, the Lutherans, were barely given any living space. In 1680, after a complaint, the Lutheran church that had been built in Franeker had to be demolished stone by stone by order of the Provincial Executive. And Roman Catholics had to invoke ‘ our dear Lord in the attic ‘. That was the maximum that could be achieved in terms of religious freedom. In most Roman Catholic countries (such as the Southern Netherlands), even that was often too much to ask. Only in the forests of Flanders, in the Geuzenhoek, were the Protestants left alone after a while and were allowed to build a building, far from the public road, and not recognizable from the outside as a church (Maria-Horebeke). People of other faiths were therefore marginalized and those who thought differently within the privileged religion were dealt with severely.

The Great Migration

In England the latter still got completely out of hand in the seventeenth century. There, the opposition to the established church took on such violent and massive proportions that it led to civil war twice. The second (1688-1690) was settled fairly quickly: King James II, who had become a Roman Catholic, had to make way for the good Protestant stadtholder of Holland, William III. The Orange Marches in Ulster still refer to this ‘glorious revolution’ (according to the term used by the winners). However, the first civil war (1642-1651) tore the country apart for years and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. For the record. Also in England there could of course only be one church, i.e. the Church of England , or in Latin: the Ecclesia Anglicana. It was either loyal to Rome or organized independently of Rome, but then it was de facto Protestant. It is well known that the Church of England changed sides several times in the sixteenth century (Henry VIII). Also that it was accompanied by a lot of bloodshed (Bloody Mary). That was terrible, but – unfortunately – not exceptional within the general European story. After all: if the color of the national church and the religion of the monarch must coincide, any succession to the throne can cause the entire church to change camps, and that will of course not happen without a fight. You don’t change religion like you change coats. This also led to gruesome scenes and population movements outside England well into the seventeenth century. By the beginning of the seventeenth century (under King James I, the man of Bible translation) it had become clear that the ‘Church of England’ would remain separate from Rome and would therefore continue as a Protestant church. Paradoxically, however, the same king chose to leave the liturgy and church order virtually unchanged (so she remained ‘Catholic’, at least in appearance). The fact that bishops, archbishops and kings then continued to behave just as authoritarian within that ‘reformed church’ as ​​before made many believers doubt whether the church was actually ‘really reformed’.

Dissenters and The Pilgrim Fathers

When protesting preachers – they were later called dissenters – were intimidated, dismissed and even imprisoned, many had enough. Such a church, neither flesh nor fish, was intolerable, especially for the ‘Puritans’. As the name indicates, they strove for a church, pure in doctrine, pure in liturgy, and holy in life. They made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the course of the ‘Church of England’. In terms of leather, they were not particularly extreme. They had Calvinist sympathies and usually got along well with the Dutch Protestants. They favored a ‘presbyterian’ church model, in which local congregations ( congregationalism in English, hence ‘congregationalism’) themselves managed the seat of spiritual authority. However, due to the typically British circumstances, the liturgy became the breaking point: Must a pastor lead the church service according to the officially approved Book of Common Prayer (liturgical manual, missal), dressed in the prescribed vestments, with obligatory gestures, written prayers and set readings, or may he simply read the Bible in those meetings and explain it as appropriate and pray as ‘the spirit gives him to express it’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, made this Prayer Book and all the trimmings mandatory under penalty of removal from office, the bomb exploded. Many ended up in prison (they no longer really burned heretics, as the century went on they concentrated more on witches), some did not survive, and even more ordinary believers dropped out. Also literally: the disinterest in church matters reached unprecedented proportions in England. For those who were serious about the church, England (church and state) was a new ‘Egypt’. Like the people of Israel, they cried out to God for deliverance from slavery. The term ‘exodus’ took on a completely new, realistic sound for them. Some actually did it and left. A first group settled in the Netherlands (Leiden), but could not settle there either. They found the Dutch Calvinists too lax and the society too liberal. They moved on to the ‘New World’ (1620). When they set foot at Plymouth it was as if they had arrived in the ‘Promised land’. There they would now finally be free to serve God. By far the most dissentersemigrated not literally, but ‘spiritually’. They felt alienated from the ‘State Church’, even though they nominally remained part of it. The widespread criticism of that church came to light when the king reconvened parliament in 1640, which he had dissolved in 1629, because he needed money (taxes). Democrats and Puritans promptly joined forces and formed a front against the king and the archbishop. A civil war broke out. After a long series of battles, a coup d’état occurred and the king was deposed (Charles I). The archbishop ended up on the scaffold (1645) and the king followed (1649): high treason was the charge on which he was found guilty. If religion and state are one, then sin against one is always betrayal of the other. England became a republic, just like that other great Protestant naval power, the Netherlands. That period lasted eleven years (1649 to 1660), with the Puritan Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector . Not long after his death, everything was reversed: the royal family was restored and the Book of Common Prayer , now sacrosanct due to its suppression, was made mandatory again. And now the Puritans were being persecuted again. Whatever one may judge of that period, it did produce two masterpieces of English literature: Paradise Lost (John Milton’s highly personal exegesis of parts of the Bible book of Genesis) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan’s allegory about the pitfalls and challenges faced by an ordinary a Christian person encounters in the course of his life, written in prison).

A new world, a new opportunity

Anyway, it goes too far to tell the whole story. It is not necessary, because this point was already made in the previous chapter. The special thing about the Anglo-Saxon variant of the permanent ecclesiastical identity crisis that the Scripture principle causes is that those who emigrated to the New World ended up in a completely new situation. London was far away, and so was Canterbury. The burden of centuries of tradition could be thrown off, the church had to be built on site (literally and figuratively). The first group of Puritans seized this opportunity in 1620/1 and started experimenting and pioneering, both civilly and ecclesiastically. The settlers entered into an agreement with each other, a ‘covenant’, which they sealed with a ‘compact’ (a disturbing urban constitution). In it they promised to unitely adhere to God’s commandments and to build society from scratch . It is surprising that from this group of Puritans, whom in our time we would call radical and fundamentalist, someone soon emerged who began to argue for total freedom of conscience and religion, to affirm the rights of the Indians on the land (against the claim of the English king), and never tires of working all his life for a complete separation between church and state. The man in question is Roger Williams (1603-1683), little known in Europe, a national hero in the US. It is therefore worthwhile to zoom in on this period, especially because here we find lines of thought and formulations that are reflected in the American Bill of Rights.have ended up and indirectly still determine our view of religious freedom as a ‘human right’. The historical context already sheds surprising light on common views. For example, it is striking that the call for the separation of church and state in its original form was not at all motivated by a resistance to an excessive influence of religion on society and politics (which could well be a typical European perspective distortion), but exactly the opposite. According to Williams, the separation of church and state is necessary to protect the church from an interfering state. And it is especially necessary because otherwise the church will be damaged beyond repair. According to this Puritan, if churches seek support from the government, this is guaranteed to be the death knell for what religion is actually about. For Williams, religion is a precious treasure, but also a very vulnerable and, above all, a very personal matter. The government should keep its hands off that. If you mix religion with politics, religion quickly ends, he says, and you are left with only politics. I already said it: they can be radical, those Puritans. Their story, which is also one of the birth stories of Western thinking about religious freedom, can be told on the basis of the history of three settlements in the New World.

A tale of three cities: Salem, Providence, Philadelphia

click here for some overview maps

Life on the Northwest coast of America was hard. Until the arrival of the Puritan emigrants, there were only a few small settlements, which had mainly served as a base for pioneers who tried to earn a living and survive by fishing, beaver hunting or forest clearing (much more was not possible for the colonists). . After difficult negotiations with the government – logical, given the reason for their emigration – the first group of Puritan emigrants, often referred to by the romantic (nineteenth century) term Pilgrim Fathers , succeeded in giving their ‘settlement’ an official character. and be recognized as a ‘colony’ by the government. As a basis for society, they drew up a kind of ‘social contract’ in which they made agreements to arrange internal government themselves as free citizens. This is called the Mayflower Compact , named after the boat they crossed with. The list of signatories coincided with the list of those who were members of the Church: 41 men, free citizens, out of a total of 102 persons. Through this ‘compact’ they formed a ‘civil body politic’, which would make valid decisions by majority vote on how public life should be organized. The body social, the body political and the body of Christ coincided again here, just as in the Middle Ages in Western Europe and then divided by region. No matter how small-scale, they did not want to do half work. The community would literally function on a biblical basis. Only in this way could their lives be pleasing to God. They felt like ‘God’s people’ living in the land that God had given them, a ‘new Israel’. The ‘elders’ carefully monitored what was taught in the church and the governor (elected from among them, but recognized as such by the King of England) was mandated to maintain order on the basis of their ‘Compact’.

In October 1621 everything was settled and the colonists who survived (less than half!) had a big party. In it they thanked God for the great privilege they had been given to build their lives here completely according to the Bible, Thanksgiving. In order not to make the mistakes that ‘Old Israel’ had made, there was a lot of Bible study, long sermons, introspection and an attempt to keep the entire community on the right path through fraternal admonition. Only through this form of self-discipline, it was believed, could the standard they had set for themselves, that is, that they had applied to themselves from the Bible, be achieved. Gradually, more religious refugees arrive. New settlements are emerging, which also regulate themselves through ‘compacts’. This administrative form of self-organization is, moreover, based on the ecclesiastical regulations that were in vogue in the Presbyterian churches of England, that is to say, they were civil variations on the church order that had come to the mind of the French lawyer, Jean Calvin, almost a century earlier. had sprouted. He thus gave the religious communities an organizational tool to function without episcopal supervision.

We are still a long way from universal religious freedom here. That is clear. These Puritans are only interested in freedom for their own religion. They create space in America to express their vision of how God should be served in complete freedom. That is why they left England and they now want to realize that: uncontaminated and pure. Church discipline concerns the whole of life, both internally and externally, about faith and morals, private and public. It is democratic in form (majority vote) but theocratic in content (God’s will is law and that law is the basis of all human legislation). Theoretically, this was also said in Europe, but there the centuries-long practice of human society with its endless tug-of-war between secular and spiritual authority had led to a complicated division of power and legislation, in which church law itself was also highly formalized. As long as these communities in the New World (around Plymouth) were small (and they were), people lived in village-like settings and social control was sufficient, with the exception of serious cases. However, the system was put to the test when in 1629, when the king dissolved Parliament and, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, assumed all power, large groups began to leave England in search of ‘the promised land’. ‘ across.

Salem, The Puritan Experiment

To prepare for this great exodus, some far-sighted minds in and around Massachusetts had made a pact with the settlers there to incorporate the existing settlements into a new colony, with a new charter. The Massachusetts Bay Company was founded and the largest settlement that had previously borne the Indian name Naumkeag was renamed ‘Salem’, the Latin form of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’, also short for ‘Jerusalem’, the holy city where God had lived among his people during the time of the temple. You already understood. A group of wealthy Puritans in England financed the entire operation and ensured that the colony’s charter was ratified by the king. It wasn’t too early. In 1629, the year that the king dissolved parliament and started to rule completely autocratically, including over the church, the great wave of emigration started. Large groups of Puritans gave up hope that the ‘Church of England’ would ever be truly reformed. They wanted to leave ‘Egypt’, to a country where they could serve God in freedom. The call to ‘leave the house of bondage’ and embark on the journey to the ‘promised land’ sounded from many a Puritan pulpit. The Massachusetts Bay Company chartered 11 ships in Southampton. A first contingent of Puritans left in 1629, the largest group waited until the spring of 1630. They left in April. This is called The Great Migration in English history books. On the day of departure they were waved goodbye by a large crowd. Emotions were given free rein. Those who stayed behind were often in doubt as to whether they should go as well, those who went in uncertainty about what awaited them, also afraid of the dangerous journey and the ‘wilderness’ that awaited them in America.

Farewell address of Rev. John Cotton

Among those departing was Rev. John Cotton of Boston (Lincolnshire, England). This celebrated Puritan minister, Master of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity of Cambridge, had, contrary to the express command of the Archbishop, laid aside the Book of Common Prayer , hung the surplice in the wardrobe, omitted the genuflection at the altar, and own reading schedule. He wanted to encourage the emigrants. And he would not be a true Puritan if, in his Farewell Address, he had not addressed the sailors seriously on the basis of the Bible, admonishing and encouraging them. He stated that they should not hesitate about their decision. It was God himself who sent them to the new world. He would certainly bless their ‘plantation’, as the settlements were called. He gave them the promise from 2 Samuel 7:10. There the prophet Nathan speaks on behalf of God and promises to David that his kingship will have no end and then continue [word of the Lord, I quote it in English because the link with the journey is immediately clear]: Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more. In the typical sermon style of that time, divided into points and sub-points, full of rhetorical questions and answers, he unfolds the idea that the plantation that the migrants are planning is not so much their work is, but God’s work. That means a great responsibility, but also an enormous certainty, because ‘no one will be able to root up what God has planted’. Their only task is to ensure that what they do is based on God’s commandments. After a humble request not to forget ‘our Jerusalem’ once they arrive in Salem (‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…’, Psalm 122), he sends the passengers away. They may behave in all their actions knowing that they are blessed by God. The sermon soon appeared in print under the title God’s Promise to His Plantation . Cotton was – I have to say – good friends with the big man behind this exodus, John Winthrop, one of the driving forces of the Massachusetts Bay Company , who also embarked on the journey with his family.

John Winthrop: A Model of Christian Charity

Winthrop was also an alumnus of Cambridge (master of law). Although a layman – but that was of course one of the striking differences – he repeated Cotton’s sermon again, probably just before disembarkation. That text was also immediately published, but was thought lost for a long time. Since it was rediscovered in 1830, it was almost immediately included in the ‘canon of American culture’: A Model of Christian Charity . Many a president in good and difficult days has referred directly or indirectly to passages from Winthrop’s sermon. In this sermon, Winthrop dreams of a whole series of new ‘settlements’, each of which would be a ‘city of God’, populated by men and women who would hold each other in joy and sorrow, as if they were one whole ( knit together as one). man ). The bond that binds them is Christian love (caritas): ‘We must find joy in each other, take care of each other, rejoice together, mourn together, toil together and suffer together, always keeping in mind that we form a community, members are of one body’. The last comparison refers to Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 12, in which he describes the church of God as ‘the body of Christ’, of which every believer is a unique and indispensable part. In this way, the cities of the Puritans would each become a ‘city on a mountain’, which cannot be hidden, a light for the world (after an imagery of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount ). “At the same time, we must be aware,” he urges the colonists, “that the eyes of all peoples are on us.” Should their mission fail, not only would they become the risée of the entire world, but God would certainly withdraw his support from the project. At the end of the speech, Winthrop even completely steps into the role of Moses, who has arrived with the people at the border of the promised land and who reminds them one more time how much they have been blessed by God and what God then does. expected of them. ‘I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life, that you may live in the land which the Lord God is giving you, you and your children after you” (Deuteronomy 30). Winthrop repeats these words, but now addressed to the Puritan emigrants standing on the border of their promised land. You cannot increase the demands or expectations much higher.

By the end of 1630, all 11 ships had sailed and more than 1,000 Puritans had landed at Salem. From there they moved on to found a new city, Boston. A few years later there are more than 5,000 of them, numbers that in our view are small, but by the standards of the time this is a mass immigration, a real tidal wave, especially when you realize how sparsely populated New England still was at the time. Winthrop became governor of Massachusetts Bay and tried to maintain control over the individual communities that were founded. That was not that simple, because the ‘non-acceptance’ of any hierarchical authority was one of the essential characteristics of the Puritans. Winthrop turned out to be a strict but fatherly leader, who was re-elected as governor for years without any problems.

Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams

Soon, however, the identitarian instability inherent in church communities built on the principle of Scripture also began to become visible in the ‘closed cities’ of the Puritans. For example, in 1634 Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston with her family. In Boston, England, she was a follower of Rev. John Cotton, the man from the  Farewell address, who had also emigrated to Boston a few years later. Anne – understandably – thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that prevailed there. Finally she could live the way God wanted, and speak out when it mattered. Anne appeared to be gifted with rhetorical gifts and had leadership qualities. She organized women’s meetings and sermon discussions. The latter in particular attracted great interest, including from some ministers and city administrators. Anne’s analyzes were sharp. The local preachers were regularly criticized for valuing the letter of the law too highly and expecting too little from the spirit of the gospel. Governor Winthrop couldn’t help but laugh. Anne caused unrest and sinned against the biblical command that everyone should ‘honor their predecessors’. She defended herself by repeating that she was simply telling the truth and that the Bible proved her right, after which she used her Bible knowledge in a way that occasionally left even educated opponents speechless. Even during the formal process that followed, she appeared not to be shy. According to her, civil law provisions were always subordinate to God’s Word and – when asked about her own authority – she let slip that God also spoke to her and that she even literally felt called by him. She had heard God’s voice. And that inner voice in the heart is what it ultimately came down to, regardless of whether this is a man, a woman, a pastor or a shoemaker. This was too much for the early fathers of young Boston. Anne was banished from the colony. She moved with her husband and six children to Rhode Island, an area outside New England. There was room for people with different opinions, because there was no law and no church. Yet there was no anarchy and it was no longer a no man’s land. A particularly idiosyncratic Puritan preacher had settled here after he had bought the land from the Indians. Then he purposely did n’t have onechurch, but he had decided to wait and see how Christ himself would put things in order in the New World, while welcoming everyone who would join his territory, regardless of origin, creed, sex or race. With this man, Roger Williams, and his private free state, we have arrived at that part of the world that will become the cradle of a form of religious freedom that will deeply define the Western world. He called the settlement he founded Providence , referring not so much to a difficult theological concept as to a deeply felt personal conviction, namely that you should not get in God’s way, but have faith that He will know how. it has to be done, even if you don’t know it right away. God will ‘provide it’.

Providence, Roger Williams and the wall of separation

With Roger Williams we meet once again an English Puritan educated in Cambridge (indeed a hotbed of Puritan theology at the time). He had experienced firsthand how the king had taken all power to himself and, through the Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to control everything in the church area as well. As a ‘jack of all trades’ he had assisted the great English lawyer Sir Edward Coke, who in the 1620s had turned against the king’s usurpation and used all legal means to counter the king. In vain. Even after he became a minister, he remained at home in Parliament. When the king put parliament ‘on hold’ in 1629, he too took his chances and left England. He arrived in Boston in 1631. His fame preceded him and of course Governor Winthrop knew him from England. The Boston church did not hesitate for a second and offered him a pastor’s position. To everyone’s surprise, Williams thanks him for the honor. When asked about his motivation, he explained that he felt that the Puritan Church of Boston was lacking in its devotion to God, not pure enough. He was not referring to a theological issue, nor to religious or moral zeal, but to a fundamental organizational deficit. The Puritan churches in the New World had not severed their ties with the state. They still relied on support from the civil government. Williams found that inexcusable. That link with state power was precisely the English disease that had ravaged the church in the mother country and why they, the Puritans, had ultimately been able to do nothing but flee that country. Had they not seen how detrimental government interference in church affairs was for the spiritual life of believers? Williams was convinced that a church can only truly become ‘church’ if it resolutely cuts all ties with the government. Only then is she free to serve the Lord, with heart and soul and with whatever other abilities she may have. According to Williams, the government should therefore keep away from anything that has anything to do with the human relationship to God. And the church should not allow itself to be taken in, even if the government is well disposed towards it. She must not be opportunistic in this. That will cost her her soul, Williams thought. With this, Williams hit a sensitive point. The Puritan project in Massachusetts, so carefully laid out by Winthrop and Cotton, was based precisely on the cordial cooperation of the secular and spiritual authorities. This is the only way the ‘city on the mountain’ could shine so brightly.

The trial and the flight

Because Williams did not exactly hide his opinion, there was great unrest in Boston and he had to leave the city after some time. He found shelter in Salem, where he was taken into custody. Although the church did not offer him an official pastor’s post, it did make use of his services as a pastor in an informal manner. When he could not keep his mouth shut there, a lawsuit was filed against him in the court of Massachusetts Bay , which ultimately decided on banishment. The year is 1635. Williams was ill and winter was approaching. The court decided to show mercy and granted a postponement until spring. At the beginning of January, however, it sent soldiers to arrest him – Williams had recovered and had once again been unable to keep his mouth shut. Governor Winthrop foresaw that Williams would then be deported to England where he would likely die. As much as he disagreed with Williams, he didn’t deserve that, and he had Williams warned that the soldiers were approaching. He didn’t hesitate for a second, put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with dried grain (a trick he had learned from the Indians when it came to food for the road) and left his house. The winter of that year was harsh. Writing about it 35 years later, Williams says he can still feel the pain he felt in his nearly frozen feet. He had neither ‘bed nor bread’ and if ‘the ravens of heaven’ had not fed him with their bread, he would certainly have died. The ‘ravens of heaven’ refer – through a biblical allusion to the story of the prophet Elijah who had to hide from the angry King Ahab and was fed by the ravens – to the Indians who had previously come to know him as a reliable trading partner, and who gave him shelter. At that moment he is in ‘no man’s land’, because Rhode Island has not yet been claimed by any European people. He decides to purchase a piece of land. He negotiates with the Indians he found there until they agree on the price. Feeling that he had been led to this place by God, he named his settlement ‘Providence’ and – he adds – it is my deepest desire that this place will become a ‘ shelter for persons distressed for conscience’ . His family soon joined him, along with about 12 other families, mostly people he had met in Salem and who shared his views on church and state. They also included some Baptists (adult Anabaptists) who had been expelled from Massachusetts Bay because their beliefs had been condemned as heretical.

Separation of church and state in Rhode Island

Williams, in turn, now also embarked on a sacred experiment. He also draws up a ‘Political Compact’ for Providence. He puts the land he bought back into the general pot. Each of the adult men receives a sufficiently large share to cultivate and cultivate. The rest remains public property. He limits the authority of the civil government to ‘worldly affairs’. The most striking thing about Providence’s ‘constitution’ is therefore what it does not say. There is no reference to God whatsoever. The government also has no assignment whatsoever with regard to any church. It must only ensure the maintenance of public order and work for the public interest. By signing this ‘compact’, the citizens of Providence promise that they will be obedient to this secular government. And as if to avoid any misunderstanding, they add that this obedience only concerns ‘civil things’. To almost all his contemporaries, both in the Old and New World, this must have sounded absurd. A government that has no legitimacy outside itself. Everywhere else in the Western world, the government legitimizes itself by referring to a divine institution (usually symbolized in a royal house that rules ‘by the grace of God’). The Puritans had also done something similar. They had been given the mandate from the Bible to build a ‘city of God’. Cotton’s sermon in which he dismissed the large contingent of Puritans from Southampton in 1630 spoke volumes on this point. The foundation of the new ‘Plantation’ was seen as an assignment from God. This was their mandate and the legal basis of their ‘Compact’. Williams reasons that the legitimacy of any worldly ruler does not rest with God, but with the people he rules, who have granted him that power and can therefore take it away again. He will therefore have to answer for that group. Williams was consistent. Church and state were kept completely apart. Just like God, the concept of ‘church’ did not even appear in the ‘Compact’. When a few years later he has to defend the independence and legitimacy of what has become ‘Rhode Island’ in England – the armies of the Puritan colonists from Massachusetts have overrun his territory and claim the territory, he takes a fierce stand against his former supporters. He accuses the Puritan colonists of being hypocritical and self-centered. They themselves fled England because they did not want to conform to the state church, but now they demand that everyone who comes to settle in their country conform to their church. He then comes up with an equation that has become world famous. “The true church of God is like a beautiful garden, undefiled and pure. It looks like the Garden of Eden. Life in the world, on the other hand, is like life in ‘the wilderness’. Every time people have made a hole in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God has broken down that wall, taken away the lampstand (biblical image of God’s presence), etc. and gave up his garden to the wilderness’. Williams argues that if you allow the state to somehow interfere in the affairs of faith, the church will end up as just another worldly institution. He succeeds in winning his battle and can return to Rhode Island with an official ‘charter’ signed by the king. InProvidence Plantations allows him to experiment with popular sovereignty, while officially remaining part of the English state. There is no trace of the ‘Church of England’ in that charter. We do read:   “No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who do not actually disturb the civil peace of our own society.” Hear how far ahead of his time Williams was!

The insurance against anarchy lies in William’s view that the state should limit itself to the ‘second table of the law’ (the last 6 commandments, which concern morality and public life) and should not interfere at all with the ‘first table of the law’ (the commandments concerning the worship of the true God, the rejection of idolatry, the worship of images, and the observance of the Sabbath). On these points, Williams believes people can believe whatever they want, because any coercion or obligation in this area leads at best to hypocrisy (outward conformity, but inner absence) and at worst to damage to the soul of the individual. For Williams, ‘freedom of the soul’ and the ‘inviolability of everyone’s conscience’ are the values ​​that prevail above all else. He achieves all this while the civil war between Puritans and the Royalists is raging in England, the 30 Years’ War is entering its final phase in Germany and State and Spanish troops are still fighting each other in the Netherlands. Enforced worship, he states, ‘is nothing but a stench in God’s nostrils’. Yeah, I can’t help it either. Williams speaks the ‘Canaan language’ and it is always very concrete and expressive. This saying was very common for a long time and goes back to the Bible itself: At a sacrifice acceptable to God, the smoke rises as a ‘ sweet-smelling odor’.‘ into God’s nostrils, and vice versa. Forcibly forcing people into a certain religion is a form of religion that does not please God. However, that is exactly what has happened in Europe. Not only recently, says William, but actually since the moment that Christianity became the ‘state religion’ under Constantine. That was the fall of Christianity. And it happens again and again when a ruler in Europe changes religion. He calls religion under duress a ‘rape of the soul’. In his later writings he develops these thoughts further and not only comes to ‘tolerating those who think differently’ (well, go ahead, as long as you keep a low profile), but he advocates complete tolerance, including of what is against enters the general Christian religion. He believes that ‘all people in all countries in the world should be given the right to hold in their conscience the most pagan, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian views.’ He even tries to show that the Bible wants this, or at least that Jesus would have wanted this. His favorite text is the parable of the weeds and the wheat that grow together and which, according to Jesus, should not be separated before the harvest, because grazing the weeds would also damage the roots of the grain. Furthermore, he discusses all the classical arguments for the divine legitimation of state power for hundreds of pages, going through the entire history of the church. In short, he uses the Bible very systematically against ‘Christianity’ (the external form that the Christian faith has taken in history) to expose the latter as a perversion of Jesus’ message. An exercise that is not that difficult and that many have already demonstrated to him (Luther, for example) and still imitate every day. It will have changed few people’s minds. To his contemporaries and former comrades-in-arms, Cotton and Winthrop, Williams was completely out of control and crazy. His colony wasn’t really taken seriously either. It was considered a ‘ragtag mess’, a wonderful collection of malcontents, a refuge for all kinds of religious groups that were not welcome elsewhere. Especially the ‘Baptists’ (the group that believed that you could only be baptized as an adult if you knew what you were supposed to believe), which in those days was about the most hated ‘sect’ in the world. They found safe shelter with Williams. They are also who have preserved his legacy and kept the idea of ​​the separation of church and state for the sake of the church high on their agenda. The Charter of Providence Plantationshas, however, hardly played a role in the further development of the regulation of religious freedom. As popular as Williams is now, he was so marginal in his own time. Not that Cotton and Winthrop (the Puritans) won the argument. On the contrary. From a completely unexpected source, once again a ‘holy experiment’ was set up in New England, in which freedom of religion also occupied a central place, but where the exercise of living together was also high on the agenda. Pennsylvania was the name of that colony, the Society of Friends , better known as the Quakers, are the ones who set the tone there. In the second half of the seventeenth century we are in the first American city built according to urban planning, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia and the Quakers, William Penn’s holy experiment

“On board my company consisted of people from all walks of life. There was a doctor with a wife and eight children, a French captain, a Dutch pastry chef, a pharmacist, a glass blower, a bricklayer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a carpenter, a cooper, a hatter, a shoemaker, a tailor, a gardener, and farmers, seamstresses, etc., all together we were about 80 people, not counting the crew. They were not only different in age (the eldest woman was 60, and the youngest child only 12 weeks) and occupation, as I have already indicated, but also so different in religions and lifestyle ([Religionen und Wandels], that I I do not think it inappropriate to compare the ship that brought them here with Noah’s ark, albeit that it contained more unclean than clean (intelligent) animals. Among my fellow travelers there are those of the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, the Calvinist, the Anabaptist, and the English Church, and only one Quaker.”  1

This is how the German lawyer Franz Daniel Pastorius describes his crossing from Europe to America in 1683. The report is intended for his family, friends who remained in Germany and, above all, for the ‘Frankfurter Land Company’, on behalf of which he bought a piece of land to build a to establish a new community. The salesman on duty is William Penn, Quaker and recently governor and owner of an immense area in the New World, wooded but fertile. More about him in a moment. First, a word about the image Pastorius uses to describe the religious mix of emigrants on board the ship. It’s like Noah’s ark. There, one specimen (m. and f.) of the living beings on earth was saved, so that – once the flood had passed – they could start again, as if it were day one of creation. On this boat are people from all backgrounds, from various professions, and especially from all possible denominations ( Religionen writes Pastorius), even a Catholic. They live peacefully together on the boat and all hope that once they arrive at their destination (Philadelphia) they can start building a new life.2 In a later report, Pastorius gives a brief impression of what church life in Pennsylvania was like. He paints a picture that seems very familiar to us now, but must have been unique at the time. First he mentions the Indians. They have ‘no articles of faith’, says Pastorius, only traditions and customs that they also pass on to their children. He sees little harm in it, although a broader instruction in Christian doctrine might help them forward. He also knows of two Calvinist churches, one for the Dutch, the other for the English. He further notes that the Quakers in Philadelphia are “known to William Penn.” They do not have a strict organization. So he can’t say much more about that. Then there are Swedes and ‘High Germans’, who are ‘Evangelical’ (ie Lutheran) and have their own pastor, called Fabricius, of whom he ‘regrets to report that he is very fond of the drink, but for does not pay attention to the need of the inner man’. He himself has ensured that a small church has now been built in the German mini-town of Germantown, but he attaches little importance to appearances. After all, it is about the people, who are the real building blocks of the church. He concludes by calling on pastors in their home country to consider making the crossing. They should then be more focused on the ‘theologia interna’ than on external matters.3

The recipients of these messages in the Frankfurt region must have been jealous. That that was possible, that these groups of people could just live peacefully next to each other! And that the boss of that country, William Penn, simply allowed it all to happen, and was even proud of it. How different it was in the German areas at that time. The Lutheran church – the only one that was admitted – was at that time torn by a battle between theologians of ‘orthodox and pietistic’ tendencies. And when I tell you that Philipp Jacob Spener, the top theologian of the pietist movement, was senior pastor of the church in Frankfurt, then you know enough. That was also the reason Pastorius moved to America in 1683. Many Pietists had hoped that the ‘reformation of doctrine’ would also be followed by a ‘further reformation’, namely that of the heart. They longed for a more mystical, intimate, collegial version of worship. They encountered a lot of resistance from orthodox quarters, and their own initiatives (coming together in groups) were viewed with suspicion. That is precisely why some of them had founded a ‘Land Company’ and sent Pastorius to prospect to America to buy a piece of land. There, those who wanted to leave the suffocating ecclesiastical atmosphere of Western Europe could lease a piece of land to start a new life. It was William Penn himself who had sown the seeds for this migration when he had traveled through Europe a few years earlier, visiting Holland, the region around Krefeld and Frankfurt.

William Penn

Penn is another strange man, atypical within the environment he represents and makes great. He himself belonged to the aristocracy of England, son of an admiral, personally friends with the king and the crown prince. However, he became the poster boy for a movement that did not recruit from the upper class at all, but found its greatest support among the ‘ordinary hardworking man’. It goes without saying that there will be a break somewhere in his life, a ‘conversion’, which, as is so often the case with conversions, did not come completely out of the blue. During his student years at Oxford he had already said goodbye to the Church of England, after which the university removed him from the rolls for ‘religious nonconformism’ and his father almost disinherited him. After a ‘European tour’ during which he studied in Saumur (France), he returns to England and crosses paths with an itinerant preacher, Thomas Loe. Through his actions he decides to join the Society of Friends , better known as ‘Quakers’. These were people who no longer had any expectations of any established church. Sometimes they had already walked the entire path from Anglican to Puritan to Baptist. This resulted in one of the most underestimated ecclesiastical phenomena in Europe: people who no longer know ‘with God’ and who either hang up the lyre or continue to search desperately. In England, these disappointed people find each other in loose groups that, quite aptly, call themselves Seekers . They no longer expected salvation from any external form of religion. They are ‘separated’, they are outside the church circuit. Sacraments, baptism, the Bible. It’s all fine, Been there, done that, and I’m still spiritually hungry. As Seekerscome together, they say nothing. They wait for God to reveal Himself. Sometimes someone feels, from within, that they have to say something. Then he (or she) takes the floor. This is how they hoped that God would be found. In this movement the realization is slowly growing that every person has an ‘inner light’, and that it is this inner light that directly connects the human soul with God. And that this light can actually do its illuminating work perfectly well without a creed, without a clergy, without the sacraments, yes, without a church. It happens more and more often that people during meetings have the feeling that God indeed wants to say something to them (or better: through them). Sometimes they start to tremble, as is often the case with great emotional tension that seeks an outlet. They owe their nickname to it: Quakers. In principle, they do not develop any religious doctrine. A later movement within this movement even begins to sing spontaneously. There a ritual simultaneous dance develops. They are called the Shakers. They like to read the Bible, but even there the inner light allows them to be selective. All external design is pragmatic and basically provisional. It is about coming together, and this always involves shared experience and/or consultation, or they remain silent. They call themselves the Society of Friends. The Quakers enjoyed spectacular success in England in the 1650s, growing to more than 50,000 in just a few years. The Puritans can’t help but laugh at it. The Quakers are persecuted. When the king returns in 1660, nothing changes for the Quakers except that there is now another persecutor and they sometimes share a cell with the former persecutor (the Puritans). They consciously chose a simple lifestyle, otherwise it was Jesus before and Jesus after. If Jesus had said that you should not ‘swear an oath, but that your yes should be yes and your no should be no’, then so be it. They refused to take the oath in court, which resulted in them being imprisoned. They also refused to pay the ‘tithes’ (church tax for a church that is not a church, why would you do that?) and again they ended up in jail. They refused to attend the official church service: go to the cell. They still came together despite the ban, in prison, etc. And, even more strange, when they were caught, beaten and humiliated, they let it happen without offering any resistance. Didn’t Jesus once say something about ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘whoever takes the sword will perish by the sword’? So they suddenly became pacifists. And it gets even crazier: Women were also created by God and, according to one of the most influential Quakers, George Fox, their subordination to men was not something essential, but something incidental, a consequence of the Fall. That sin was expiated by Jesus. Ergo, woman’s original glory has been restored through Christ. They too share in the inner light, and participate on an equal basis with the men within the Quaker communities. Because Quakers saw the personal whisperings of God as being entirely in line with the written record of earlier whisperings, they had great boldness in their ‘God talk’. In addition to the relationship with God, which was preferably very personal and intimate, they were very socially oriented. After all, they also had to love their neighbors. They are not called Society of Friends for nothing .They did not impose anything on anyone in terms of religion, although they of course tried to convert everyone to their views. The criticism of the established church in their proclamation is obvious. They were sweet, but certainly not neutral. So in 1666, William Penn joins this group and promptly becomes their top propagandist, especially when he, the king’s friend, is arrested while preaching on the streets in London and has to appear in court. His trial becomes a turning point in the appreciation of the Quakers. Calmly and smartly, Penn defends what he did, why he did it and why the charges against him are flawed. A popular jury acquits him, while the judge wanted him convicted, a first in Europe. For the first time, lawyers are also starting to doubt whether they are doing the right thing. In 1776 he traveled through Holland and Germany to let ‘his inner light’ shine in so many places and to ignite it in others, or less patriarchally: to bask together in each other’s inner light. He visits the Baptists in Krefeld, the Pietists in Frankfurt and takes special time to visit the Labadists in Friesland. He really wants to speak to Anna Maria van Schuurman, the most intelligent woman in Western Europe, who had withdrawn from the world and lived in a commune in Wieuwerd. What all these different people have in common is that they have separated themselves from the standard church and have therefore become partly outside normal life. During this pastoral propaganda trip by William Penn, the seeds were sown for the crossing of Pastorius and his followers from Frankfurt and Krefeld in 1683, with which I began this chapter.


Because it soon became clear that the Quakers were ‘unwanted’ in England, many moved to the New World. There they hope to find the freedom to let their ‘inner light’ shine for people, or to help other people also find their ‘inner light’. This works fine in unpopulated areas or not yet really settled areas (e.g. in New York and the like), but when they come to areas with Puritan rule, they notice that the New World there is a carbon copy of the old. The death penalty is pronounced even faster than in the home country, and sometimes even carried out. Then they will be a lot better off in Rhode Island. Roger Williams welcomes them to his colony, even though he disagrees with their views. By the way, he was something of a seeker . Elsewhere they sometimes succeed in having their own settlements recognized, but they only really get the wind in their sails when William Penn starts his ‘holy experiment’. Due to circumstances, a piece of the New World just falls into his lap. The king still had an enormous debt outstanding to Penn Sr. In 1681, Charles II paid off that debt in one go by allocating the son a gigantic area that had not yet been taken into possession. In the charter the king refers to Admiral Penn and also includes the term ‘sylvania’ (wooded area). The name of the new colony was born: Pennsylvania. A little later, Penn receives Delaware from the Duke of York. Penn drafts a constitution, goes to America, negotiates with the Indians living there about how best to arrange property rights, and has surveyors define an area in a favorably located spot on the Hudson River. There he will have Philadelphia built. The frame of governmentthat Penn designs is completely in the spirit of the Quakers. In Pennsylvania – as in Rhode Island – there will be total freedom of conscience. As for the Indians, they are not just paid and then ignored. On the contrary, in a series of treaties he builds up good relations with the Lenni Lenape, as the main tribe of Indians in that region are called. And those who wish can also participate in his project with full citizenship rights. He summarizes his vision of what legislation should be in one sentence: “the ruler should never become so powerful that the will of one person could hinder the well-being of an entire country.” Returning to London, he continues his campaign for religious tolerance, while in Philadelphia his ‘holy experiment’ begins to gain steam. And unlike Rhode Island, Pennsylvania is making history. The whole world hears about it (Penn does an excellent job of propaganda and has ‘agents’ here and there in Europe from whom you can take options on plots of land). Germans in particular find their way to Pennsylvania. Now it’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia, but in the 1700s it was Germantowna household name in Germany and the Netherlands. Franz Daniel Pastorius, who had done the prospecting and arranged the purchase (he was a lawyer by training, and in addition to being a classicist, was also a not without merit poet), was soon elected mayor after its foundation. Baptists in particular (Mennonites, but also the followers of the Swiss Baptist Jacob Amman, the Amish) moved there. Later, the Schwenckfelders (kindred spirits of the Quakers, whose origins go back to the early period of the Reformation) also found their way there. Sometimes they transplant their own church to a foreign country, sometimes they join a related church, but very often they become somewhat ‘diffuse’ in their ecclesiastical outline. The special thing about Pennsylvania is that in terms of organization, everything is allowed, and nothing is required. The term ‘affiliated with’ also loses some of its meaning. The hard, closed group identities, clearly demarcated and distinguished from each other, naturally fade away in a country where legislation does not attach any advantages or disadvantages to them and instead you are constantly challenged about your personal commitment. To this day, Pastorius, who was a Lutheran when he left (with pietistic and mystical elements), remains unclear about what exactly he actually believed and which church or community he had joined. Meanwhile, he had the confidence of everyone and was the mayor of Germantown for many years. He ensured that social life was booming, he practiced pioneering agriculture and horticulture (which was perfectly possible in Philadelphia), he tried to convince German wine growers to come over, he founded schools (wrote the manuals himself if necessary). was), founded cultural associations, opened libraries, hospitals and organized poor relief. In short: he set up everything he thought was necessary and took it upon himself when there was (yet) no one else to do it. In his numerous letters to the home front, which of course also served to attract new immigrants, he was honest about the problems and dangers (unlike Penn, for example, who used to present everything in a very rosy way). At the same time, his letters were full of practical tips for the crossing, what to take with you and what to pay attention to. And his descriptions of the landscape, flora and fauna, the lifestyle of the Indians, not to mention his enormous collection of ‘local proverbs and sayings’ are still a Fundgrube todayfor researchers. We also encounter the same well-known biblical rhetoric with him when he wants to convince people to risk the crossing. Those who are not afraid of the hardships of the crossing, he writes, “can come out of European Babylon in the name of the Lord; but when he leaves, he should not do it like Lot’s wife, who left with her ‘feet’, but who actually stayed in Sodom with her heart and senses (literally: stayed behind with the so bequemlich Hausrath ) and who looked after that, something that, as you know, did not suit her well.”

Penn and Pastorius were pious men, but unlike the Puritans, not at all afraid of people who thought differently or believed differently. Penn did not want Philadelphia to be a ‘city on a mountain’, accessible only to those who are pure in doctrine and blameless in their walk (after Psalm 24), but a ‘ Society of Friends , a ‘brotherhood of men’ (Philadelphia is also the name of one of the seven churches in Asia Minor, to which the ‘angel of the Lord sends a letter in the vision of the seer of Patmos, better known as ‘the revelation to John’, or ‘the Apocalypse’. Of the seven cities, Philadelphia is the only one where only good points are highlighted). Not a closed, but an open city. The Pietists from Frankfurt were welcome, as were the Anabaptists from Krefeld. Pastorius cannot emphasize enough in his letters how much everyone here is truly equal before the law and can count on fair treatment. It is therefore not surprising that in 1688 we see the name of Franz Daniel Pastorius appearing (along with those of three other Germantown residents) on a petition calling for equal rights for blacks. This happens at the very moment when slaves are brought to Pennsylvania from the Caribbean islands for the first time. They want this subject discussed at the monthly meeting of the Quakers. It is the first official document in American history where this is argued in a simple and clear manner. The core text in this petition is a word from Jesus: ‘What you do not want done to you, do not do to others’. The rest is unfolding of this principle. Clear, right?

Because Penn declared the ‘ecclesiastical enclosure’ irrelevant and appealed to each person for his unique humanity (the inner light), the social side of the religious impulse could finally come to light. The mutual connection that religion evokes, but which is usually limited to one’s own group (us-them, in-crowd-out-crowd), could now be unfolded society-wide, in short, the impetus had been given. The reality is of course a lot more unruly.

The freedom of religion

The journey through these three cities in New England makes very clear some things that have proven to be fundamental in the further development of religious freedom, not only in America, but also in Europe. Before I briefly outline that development and return to Europe (and pick up where it left off at the end of part 1), I would like to summarize the results of the research and anticipate their importance for the question of how religion can best be is given a place in a society based on ‘laws’. After all, it is clear that in the minefield of competing religious movements, only a ‘legal arrangement’ can provide the necessary protection. It is of course important that this is done correctly, i.e. that the laws that are made for this purpose are appropriate for the subject they want to regulate, preferably both effectively and fairly. Our city trip took us through three stages in that experiment. The ‘holy experiment’ mainly concerned the regulation of a religious variant of Christianity, Protestant Christian. Of course, that also determines the options that could be devised. People were busy settling the tensions within the Protestant variant of religion. As explained at the end of part 2, the focus of the Protestant concept of religion lies in the correct formulation of the ‘set of beliefs’. That is the defining characteristic of the ‘true church’. The definition of the ‘set of beliefs’ is closely linked to the interpretation of the holy book. This is so much the case that I have unknowingly started talking more and more about ‘faith’ (religious views, people who fled because of their faith, etc.) instead of ‘religion’. The language field we entered in this chapter reflected that. And then I have almost completely filtered out the real theologian language. If I had left that as well, this piece would have come across as abracadabra, only readable by theologians and scribes. A harmful side effect would then have been that no recognition would have been achieved between many of you and the people reviewed. Hopefully now. They are not that strange, those people from back then.

Freedom of religion: Religious institutions are opposed

Differences of opinion about the ‘set of beliefs’ inevitably led to church schisms, because a once ‘established church’ continued to hold on to its organizational monopoly and could also enforce this with the help of state power. Over time, dissenters inevitably disappeared. They then often – but not always – regrouped and considered themselves the manifestation of the ‘true church’. The repetitive break that this resulted in has, I hope (fear), become clear. It only came to a standstill when it could go no further, that is, at the faith of the individual. Faith (religion) has thus definitively become an individual and personal matter in the Protestant tradition. It is regularly at odds with the institution that officially represents that faith (or another version thereof), including its own institution. The importance of this observation cannot be easily overestimated. The first and fiercest opponent of religious freedom is the institution of the established religion, ‘the church’ in the Christian religion. Manifestations of the religious impulse that deviated too much from the official discourse were therefore guaranteed to have problems with the official representatives of the established church: Luther clashed with the Roman Catholic Church; The Anabaptists, the enthusiasts (pejorative collective name for those who expect more from inner than from doctrinal renewal) and all those other, now sometimes forgotten, movements that existed in the sixteenth century, had to deal with repression from the Roman Catholic , the Lutheran (and later Reformed) churches. They sometimes even temporarily put aside their mutual disputes to nip these terrible ‘heresies’ in the bud. Just ask the ‘Baptists’ and not just that one time when they proclaimed the kingdom of God in Münster out of sheer desperation. In short, any movement that is not mainstream becomes the first victim of the intolerance inherent in institutionalized religion.

Freedom of religion: Some benefit from it

Within the Protestant world, where the doctrinal view of religion was dominant, ‘the way in’ that fits the individualization of faith can create an opening for religious tolerance. You wouldn’t expect that in itself. Initially, the personalization of faith leads to an increase in the weight of the ‘religious issue’ and thus to a hardening of positions. After all, there is only one truth. The debates in the Protestant world were unimaginably intense, and the pamphlets that were passed back and forth were populist: diabolism everywhere. Religion no longer only determines the community (group identity, medieval church, where you can still join quite anonymously), but also and especially personal identity. The ‘name Christian’ (being a nominal member of a church, but not doing much with it) is becoming a swear word. This therefore increases religious tension. We saw it happen in England. It becomes a matter of vital importance to individuals whether they are serving God rightly. People are willing to accept captivity and (voluntary) exile. This heightened religious tension led to the Puritans’ experiment in leaving sinful England and founding a ‘holy city’ elsewhere. However, this experiment increased the religious tension so much that the whole thing blew up in the faces of the experimenters. From that explosion we saw individuals emerge, who were ultimately  content that they would not be hindered in their religion and who – for that reason – allowed others to do the same, even though their deepest conviction was different. These few usually formed their own alternative true church, but some abandoned the concept of ‘church’ altogether. In the New World, Roger Williams was a prime example of this. While waiting for God to take care of his own affairs, and therefore to gather his sheep in his way and in his time, he sets everyone in Providence free as far as their deepest inner convictions are concerned. And – an important addition – he gives them the right to organize themselves around that inner conviction or not . The civil government is no longer allowed to interfere in this: a wall of separation.In England we see the ‘seekers’ adopt the same wait-and-see attitude. There too, the ‘inside of man’ begins to glow. Although the ecclesiastical and political rulers there also did everything in their power to extinguish this inner light as quickly as possible, they were unable to control the countermovement. Within the ‘Society of Friends’, the inside is where it happens. In Pennsylvania, that soul receives constitutional protection. The government is not allowed to touch it. The further design is pragmatic and is determined by the content. In the meantime, the question of truth is still being hotly debated, also by the Quakers, but it seems that people who differ in opinion about this and at the same time recognize that nothing can be achieved here through external means, freedom of religion is possible. A sine qua non for this form of tolerance is that the government keeps completely aloof.

Freedom of religion: legalization

a LAT relationship or a cohabitation contract?

This model of religious freedom (individual right) is based on a double separation. The believers have often separated themselves from the established churches: No established church . Subsequently, various groups of secessionists live together in one region, but they do not share their ‘innermost conviction’. It is the mutual recognition of being discriminated against by the established church that leads to people giving each other light. One may shape the deeply felt religious impulse according to one’s own wishes and with one’s own resources: Free exercise of religion . The two central clauses of the famous First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights are thus found: non-establishment, free exercise. Precisely because this is a formal right, and therefore empty in terms of content, it says nothing about the practice of living together. The religious impulse may run its course completely freely, but that freedom is legally framed. Also, the term ‘religion’ is not defined anywhere. Rightly so, because a definition would already be a first restriction of the free exercise clause. The question is: won’t that come up later? In order to be able to judge whether the free exercise of religion is being violated, you have to have an idea of ​​what it is about. That is what the last part of this essay will be about. In the young Federation of States in America this did not yet pose a major problem, because in fact everyone involved implicitly carried with them a Christian idea of ​​religion that was of the Protestant type. Another aspect of this legal freedom is that there was no ecumenical assignment linked to it. In religionis, such a society could easily become a LAT society, a living apart together of various movements, with the risk that society would fall apart (people do not live together spiritually , but next toeach other). This risk had actually already been countered by the assumption that there was no difference of opinion about the ‘second table of the law’ (the social-moral commandments). And because this ‘second table’ of the law also happened to coincide with ‘natural law’, it was believed, people were more or less on the same page on social and moral issues. As long as all dominant ‘sects’ were Christian movements, this position could more or less be maintained. People shared a Christian civil morality. Yet someone like William Penn apparently felt that this agreement with the commandments of society should not so much be theoretical, but above all practical. It had to be specifically developed and designed. This makes his ‘holy experiment’ so interesting. Penn downplays the importance of the ‘set of beliefs’ and the associated actions from his own experience of faith as a Quaker. He debates it, but otherwise makes no point about it. He allows that in his society people can have a LAT relationship in philosophical areas. But in order to live together there must be more than that. So he calls on all people who want to live within his frame of government to roll up their sleeves and commit themselves to building a society on a ‘friendly’ basis. The Quakers themselves set the example with their concrete commitment and very specific interpretation of what that is, living as a society of friends. Without wishing to idealize his experiment, I believe that this social ‘complement’ is one of the reasons why the Philadelphia experiment lasts and will later be used as an example when the discussion about the legal anchoring of religious freedom in the new Constitution of the United States is getting underway ( Bill of Rights ). In addition to religious tolerance (already guaranteed by the rejection of government interference and the freedom to self-organize), a shared social commitment is placed here. Together they offer perspective.

Separation of church and state

Finally, I think it is important to note that in the New World at least the call for a separation between church and state did not come from the state and certainly not from the established church(s), but was rather a cry for help. of people who considered religion too important to themselves and others to leave its management to politicians. They wanted – to put it bluntly – that the government should keep its hands off everything that has to do with people’s religious beliefs. They only had bad experiences with that. Matters of faith were too precious and too vulnerable to be exposed to political manipulation.4 In such cases, politics always takes advantage of the forms of religious impulse that suits them, or makes off with them, and at the same time tries to curtail the less favorable obstacles. To put it bluntly: a state at war likes the strengthening formula that religion can provide: ‘for God and country’, but will be inclined to silence pacifist prophetic voices. The best way to reduce the former to just ‘an opinion’ and to also allow the latter to be discussed is to ensure that the government cannot touch it at all. The fact that believers were the requesting, and later even demanding, parties when it came to a legal separation of church and state is good to keep in mind when we put on our European glasses again. In Europe, the historical development has been exactly the opposite. There was also a call for separation of church and state, but mainly to reduce ecclesiastical influence in public life and political decision-making, or more simply: to untangle and cut through the tangle in which both powers were entwined. if necessary (as if it were a Gordian knot).

Before we return to Europe, a brief overview of how the American battle for religious freedom has ended. This was settled in a trendsetting manner in the Bill of Rights that was added to the First American Constitution in 1791. The first right formulated therein concerns freedom of religion ( the First Amendment ) However, a first step had already been taken in 1776 when a number of English colonies joined together and declared independence. This is done by appealing to ‘certain unalienable rights’ that God has given to man. It is worthwhile to pay some attention to both texts, because they reveal the pattern of thought to which current human rights are at least indebted in their formulation.

God, natural law and human rights

Declaration of Independence

If you want to rebel against a king who, according to everyone, rules ‘by the grace of God’ and to whom you ‘owe obedience’ according to the law, you must have good credentials and a strong motivation. The Americans provided the justification for their uprising in their Declaration of Independence . In your legitimation you cannot actually ignore God, because you have to ‘trump’ the king’s legitimation. That is exactly what happens in this declaration, especially in the ‘lead-up’ to it, the Preamble . However, the reference to God remains limited to very general terms. Logical, because Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration, was a deist, i.e. he firmly believed that God is behind everything, but equally firmly that God now lets the laws of nature take their course, and especially that he de facto controls has entrusted over created things to man. It is in these kinds of terms that ‘religion’ is discussed in the Declaration of Independence. This already happens in the opening words. There reference is made to the ‘Laws of Nature’, a beautiful formulation of the belief that natural law is given by God5 ‘. Nature and God are almost interchangeable here:Deus sive natura. If human actions conform to the laws of nature (and of God), then it is okay. It is now a matter of demonstrating that ‘nature’ (God) gives you the right to rebel, and you can sign the Declaration of Independence with a clear conscience. The war that breaks out afterwards is also justified in principle. I don’t think anyone will deny that such legitimization always has something of an incantation. The firmness with which human rights will soon be formulated is a good example of this. More about that sentence later. The two other references to God in the statement mainly have a moral function. Therectitude of their intentionsmay be checked bythe Supreme Judge of the worldand will then certainly remain standing, they assure. And furthermore, in the execution of the matter, one relies on the protection ofthe Divine Providence. That’s good for ‘morale’, so to speak. If this declaration is about the inalienable rights of man, then it is not an optional exercise, but it is about putting into words the legal basis for the uprising. Big words are appropriate here and God’s role is therefore emphatically highlighted. The formulation has made history:“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The religious terminology here serves to confirm the ‘right’ of the revolution. At the same time, this makes one of the first formulations of human rights (which are considered to be universally valid) indebted to the Christian teaching about God as creator and the church’s teaching of natural law based on it. Human rights (as Laws of Nature ) are anchored in this. Jefferson drew inspiration from the English philosopher John Locke for his formulations, who also explicitly refers to ‘natural law’ in his essays on the foundation of man’s legislative activity. According to him (and many before and after him) there are ‘laws in nature’ that coincide with the laws of God, the Creator. God has, as it were, ‘created’ it. They are universal (what applies to one person applies to all) and they are inherent (you cannot and should not separate them from them). Hence the term ‘unalienable’. He links this to the view that a ‘state’ is formed when people unite freely in a political community. You recognize the idea of ​​the ‘contrat social’. We actually encountered them both earlier in this chapter in the ‘compact’ that Roger Williams drew up for Providence Plantations (Rhode Island) and had it ratified by the English king in 1643 (check). What interests us now is mainly the appeal to God (ie the Creator) who created man in such a way that these rights belong to his nature. Thus they are essential and inalienable. The wording in that respect clearly leaves nothing to be desired. In 1776, Jefferson could apparently assume, on the one hand, that no one in America would disagree with this legal basis and, on the other hand, he apparently could not come up with any other legal basis than this. That’s not surprising. At the end of the eighteenth century, God as Creator was still naturally present behind the world. Before Darwin, you could theoretically be an atheist, but you actually had no alternative explanation at hand for the origin of life. So you almost had to postulate some kind of ‘god’. Deists were minimalists in this regard: God as a clockmaker who ‘set things in motion’, nothing more. God as creator of the ‘laws of nature’. That’s all. The rest has been left to nature and its management outsourced to humans. It was also well equipped by God for this purpose. He had been given a sharp mind, an inquisitive mind and a conscience. And according to many, also a sense of God. You will feel that we have arrived back where we left off in Chapter 1. Deists included most of the US Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. That human rights are ‘ingrained in the nature of man’ itself is an idea that continues to dominate the debate long after Jefferson. Also the Déclaration des droits de l’hommeof the French Revolution still refers to God in the introduction. The assembled Assembly no longer bases rights on a natural law, but – strangely thought – still takes God as a witness: En presence et sous les auspices de l’Être Suprême . Only with the ‘universal declaration of human rights’ in 1948 did God disappear from the texts themselves, although this was still hotly debated during the preparations. However, the suggestion that they are universal has been abandoned, while the ‘ground’ on which this is based (natural law, God as creator) has been left out. The question, however, is whether that is a bad thing. Do human rights expire the moment people no longer believe that ‘man’ was created this way by God? Some Christian authors take a certain pleasure in harping on this point. You then read arguments such as: Anyone who looks at man through the glasses of natural science only sees ‘selfish genes’ (Dawkins) at work to multiply themselves maximally with man as a carrier. How can you ever deduce a human right from such a view of humanity? Or – variant – in psychological or neurological research you find little that underlines ‘human dignity’. On the contrary, in fact. So, that’s the assumption: if you want to ascribe ‘rights’ to people, you have to ‘believe in something’. Or in God, the Creator of every person (then you have solid ground under your feet) or in ‘man himself’, but on what do you base those rights, or why those rights and no others? Then it is pure arbitrariness, wishful thinking, projection. I think the wisest response to such a comment is to remain friendly, nod in agreement, and then say: okay, you’re right, I admit it. I don’t base them on anything, but I think they are good and I am willing to grant them to every person, including you. And I hope you like me too. And we will then agree that we will try to get as many other people as possible interested in these rules. In other words, legitimacy can also be found by referring to agreements made between people. Why not? Why shouldn’t law simply emerge from the relationships and interactions between people? In any case: if the reference to the order of creation or ‘nature’ is no longer valid for everyone, then there is little other option than to simply agree with each other from now on that you will respect the legacy of the past (in the case of West -Europe, parliamentary democracy, constitution, separation of powers, secular society), no matter how it originated and how it was legitimized at its origin. In the meantime, I think it is smart to realize that human rights are part of our Western culture and that when push comes to shove, all legislation, no matter how absolute it sounds, is ultimately ‘man made law’.

Of course, there is a catch here. Human rights in their current formulation are, as mentioned, anchored in Western culture, I said. That is obvious. They are a product of it. This means that one can doubt the claim that they are ‘objective and universal’. They can be, yes. It is also the case that, due to their origins in natural law, they are formulated in a rather absolute manner. It is posited, not motivated. This fits in with a time when it was assumed that human law was considered to be grounded in divine law. Implicit in this method of finding law is that it is assumed that the actual nature of something can be determined (e.g. of ‘human beings’) and that then that nature is normative (human beings are ‘endowed with certain freedom rights’). That was a very powerful legitimization, as long as everyone roughly agreed on it. After all: after such a preamble in which ‘the rights of man’ seem to come directly from God, you can no longer answer with: ‘So what?’. If God gave them, then you must respect them. This way of founding the law not only gave human rights the appearance of objectivity, but it also gave the rules that people thought could be derived from them a lot of authority. Of course, that was exactly the intention. But of course it’s just an appearance. The universal declaration of human rights is also ‘man made law’ and the firm formulation (‘ We hold this truth to be self-evident’ , well, that is quite disappointing) must be understood as a rhetorical legal figure of speech. In any case, it is pointless to discuss it further within the framework of the time. ‘Is that equality really inherent in nature?’ ‘And what exactly is that nature?’ We have definitively lost that kind of reasoning on which to base laws due to the insights of the biosciences. Nothing to be done about it. However, every person has the right to doubt whether the formulations and the derivations from them are actually correct. In other words: in the world of ‘man made law’ nothing lasts forever. However, it is precisely part of the game (part of the rules of the game) that such fundamental legislation is interfered with as little as possible, given the weight attached to precisely these formulations in our culture. And, like any law, they apply – not because we agree with them – but because they were once ratified.

Religious Freedom: The Bill of Rights

When, after the declaration of independence (during the war), a new constitution had to be discussed in the states that broke away from England, religion was of course explicitly discussed. The ‘Church of England’ had until then been the ‘Established Church’. Usually this was the Anglican church ( Episcopalian in the US), sometimes it was also the Presbyterian church. Taxes were levied for this under English rule. A source of annoyance, as you understand, for those residents who did not belong to that church and had to fend for themselves (if the legislature allowed them to do so, which varied considerably per colony). Now the question arose with all relevance: How are we going to arrange this after the American Brexit. Two options competed with each other. Do we move towards a system of multiple establishment (based on the idea of ​​religious tolerance) or do we adopt the model of the charters that were introduced in a number of colonies in the seventeenth century (see above: Rhode Island and Pennsylvania), whereby no Some churches received government support and everyone had to take care of themselves in terms of church construction. In the jargon: dis-establishment of all religion (based on the idea of ​​individual religious freedom). James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most influential Founding Fathers, were proponents of the latter. The slogan with which they operated was: free exercise of religion for all . They combined this with a ban on the use of government money for anything that had anything to do with religion. General George Washington thought this was too far. He saw no problem with the option of supporting multiple religions (de facto: churches) at the same time and thought it was unnecessary to be so strict. Religion was a good thing, right? Religion provides social cohesion and helps to keep people in line. A line of thought that was general at the time and that you still regularly encounter in all kinds of gradations and variations in the debate about religion and society. It is also that assumption that drives Michel Houellebecq’s future fable Soumissionprovides the necessary plausibility. Religion provides social peace and guarantees sound morality. Formulated the other way around, it worked even more strongly. This was the rhetoric of the established churches: Without a church, society degenerates. Religion is the guarantor of moral and social order. For Christians this meant maintaining the ‘second table of the law’. And according to almost everyone at the time (from Deist to Baptist), this roughly coincided with the ‘natural law’. That turned out well! Consensus. Well, why not subsidize that good religion with government money? Seen in this light, it is actually very surprising that the discussion about religious freedom in America ultimately turned out in the other direction. The decisive factor was the debate that broke out on this issue in Virginia in 1784-5. The local hero of the revolution, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty, or give me death,” he had exclaimed on the eve of the revolution) had introduced a bill to support religious groups with public money ( multiple establishment , from a series – not all! – Protestant churches). The church tax from before would be reintroduced, but now the cake would be divided. It was even considered to give taxpayers the opportunity to indicate which church their ‘tithe’ would be intended for. And if people did not want to give it to a specific church group, they could also choose another ‘constructive’ goal. Furthermore, all religions were allowed to organize themselves freely on the condition that people believed in one God and the final judgment. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison resisted fiercely. They demanded a complete ban on government interference with religion: tax money could not be used for ‘any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever’. At the same time, they also formulated this positively – in principle, but also smart – as a plea for complete freedom of religious practice. They received support from the leaders of a number of Protestant groups, especially the Baptists, who remembered all too well that Presbyterians can also discriminate considerably. In the final ‘remonstrance’ that Madison submitted against Henry’s bill, freedom of religion is formulated as a human right: ‘religion is an inalienable right of every individual human being’. Almost everyone thought and discussed. Petitions were drawn up, motions were submitted, meetings were organized. In addition to the Baptists, the Methodists, Episcopalians (= former ‘Church of England’) and some of the Presbyterian churches (which were therefore indeed eligible for subsidies) also ultimately supported Jefferson’s bill. Very popular in ‘evangelical circles’ was the following syllogism: The Christians did it without government support for the first few hundred years. The church grew. Then Christianity became the state religion under Constantine. The decline began. Ergo: ‘Religious establishment has never been a means of prospering the Gospel’ write the ‘petitioners’ of Cumberland County6 ) We hear here a clear echo of Roger Williams’ extensive plea for a strict separation of church and state (Bloody Tenent) in which he builds the same argument. The counterargument that a formal right to freedom of religion also allowed pagan religions, and – even worse – the Madisons and Jeffersons came to power (after all, they were not orthodox Christians at all, but deists, the then most common manifestation of ‘ Enlightenment thinkers’) was countered by an optimistic prediction: The abolition of government support would not lead to a triumph of deism, but would automatically allow true religion to triumph. After all, the pastors would then not be weak ‘government servants’ (‘mercenaries’ in biblical language) but realpastors, shepherds, who with their own lives were an example of faithfulness, an example and piety and whose preaching would be full of God’s Spirit. . As a result, the forces of deism would soon be defeated.7 Such texts regularly referred to the state of Pennsylvania, which has shown for decades that it works, even works well. It also became clear to legal thinkers that there are actually no objective criteria available to distinguish a ‘good religion’ from a ‘not good one’? Which doctrine, which not? Only Protestant or also Catholic? Should you believe in the Trinity, infant baptism? Or not? And which praxis is included and which is not? Or as James Madison wrote in 1784 for a speech in Virginia in 1784: ‘What is orthodox? What is heretical?’8 . The criteria are always arbitrary, always excluding certain citizens from theexercise of their religionwhile favoring others. George Washington, who was initially in favor of the idea of ​​multiple establishment, reverses course. He foresees that the issue of which religions would and which would not be eligible for state support could lead to bitter discussions and ultimately suffocate the young state. When the vote finally came, Thomas Jefferson’s proposal was accepted by a vote of 74 to 20. Government support for religion was outlawed, while freedom of worshipwasguaranteed for all religions (not just Protestant or just Christian). The political alliance between deistic politicians and ‘evangelical’ religious communities (who fought the deistic position with fire and sword in their proclamation) remained in place until the election of Jefferson as president in 1800. It also provides the necessary background to the often quoted letter from Thomas Jefferson to theDanbury Baptist Association, which feared that the dominant denomination might push them out within the new Federation of States. After all, they had experienced this firsthand during colonial times. In his response, Jefferson solemnly affirms that as president he will ensure that everywhere in the Federation of States that has now been established, a “wall of separation” will be erected between ‘church and state’. Jefferson explicitly refers to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which cements that separation (The Bill of Rightsof 1791).9 An interesting detail: the colony that was once founded by the Puritans to escape the ‘state church’,Massachusetts, was the last of the American states to give up its resistance to formal religious freedom. She would have preferred ‘multiple establishment’ and tolerance, instead of total religious freedom. She did not ratify the constitution until 1833.

The First Amendment

What exactly does that famous First Amendment to the American Constitution say, which Jefferson also refers to in his letter to the Baptists? The text comes from James Madison and was amended several times during discussions in Congress until it read:

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 to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.10

Interestingly, during the discussion there were several attempts to use more precise terms than ‘religion’. For example, proposals have been submitted to replace the term ‘establishment of religion’ with ‘religious doctrine’ or ‘articles of faith or modes of worship’. Even the ‘multiple establishment’ formula came back on the table. However, all these motions were rejected. Madison’s formal concept of ‘freedom of religion’ tout court remained intact and, due to its condensed formulation, is actually even better presented than in the original. Jefferson’s sentence from his letter to Danbury Baptist, in which he interprets this amendment as the creation of a “wall of separation between church and state” does not actually do justice to the radicality and comprehensiveness of this ban. The government should not only not concern itself with the establishment of a national church ( dis-establishment ), it goes much further than that. She promises to refrain from all government interference with religion ‘whatsoever’. The most common mistake made in the discussion about the application of this rule is that ‘religion’ is immediately equated with a religious institution (church). That is not what it says and was not the intention. Free exercise of religion is not an institutional right, but an individual human right. This is also often handled hopelessly carelessly in discussions about religious freedom. Only in a derivative sense (arising from individual right) is it also a group right.

For the continuation of the search for ‘how religion works’ and ‘what it actually does’, it is especially important to note that this amendment says several things at the same time . In this way it honors the diverse and very vital religious world of the late eighteenth century as it had developed during colonial times. Nowhere else in the world will one find such a broad spectrum of religious movements as in America. In other words, the young Federation had a real spiritual pluralism. So the federal government promises that it will keep its hands off. The human religious impulse is allowed to develop freely and can therefore demonstrate its value, both for individual life and for society. The government lets this rant quietly, convinced that it will benefit the country. She accepted that rival factions would continue to exist side by side, and that they sometimes lived at odds with each other. People had confidence in the people and, as previously indicated, the example of Pennsylvania, where the ‘noblest predecessors’ emerged and where society flourished socially and economically, apparently gave the citizen courage. Roger Williams and William Penn could be satisfied. They had gotten their way.

This amendment and this wording would make history. It takes apart religion and state in a way previously unseen, in both the Old and New Worlds. The free exercise of religion is guaranteed not for one group, nor for a privileged selection of religious groups, but for all individuals regardless of the content of their religion. At that time, people mainly thought of Christian movements, but others could also rely on them without any problem. Self-regulation should be the rule, and in the event of conflicts, general legislation should provide solutions. The Founding Fathers probably suspected that this would not be that simple , but apparently they did not want to arrange things differently in principle. Better freedom than a minimum of coercion. The second half of the First Amendment , they believed, should provide all parties with sufficient resources to make their case if tensions were to escalate. After all, at the same time as the free exercise of religion, Congress promised that it would also oppose any restriction of ‘the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. ‘ She is not going to play referee, at most she will intervene on formal grounds if a person or a group believes that a fundamental right has been violated. She will not judge opinions, but only look at actions. I will return to this in the final remarks (ch. 4), because in recent years very interesting trials have been conducted in the US before the Supreme Court, in which judges had to determine what did and did not fall under free exercise of religion . So they too have taken the theologian’s seat, exactly what James Madison wanted to avoid when he drafted the text for the First Amendment , for the simple reason that that is not possible from the nature of the matter. Before we devote ourselves to this, we first return to Europe, where the relationship between state and religion has not been settled in a satisfactory manner. In many countries that relationship had much of a ‘struggle’, a constant tug-of-war between the church(s) and the state organ.

Meanwhile in Europe

The path to the free experience of religion in Europe has taken very different paths than in the United States. When a democratic republic with the aforementioned freedom of religion was already functioning there, Europe was still chasing away the ghosts of the Ancien Régime with its intense intertwining of church power and state power. The legislation had become more liberal (tolerance edicts), but in practice things did not really go smoothly. There was no real free exercise of religion in the early nineteenth century. In fact, it was to be expected that established churches in particular were obstructive. The best organized among them, the Roman Catholic, made the struggle against free thought, the democratic form of government and freedom of religion one of the spearheads of its church policy, which – as already mentioned in chapter 1 – it actually only gave up in principle in the 1960s (Second Vatican Council). It is no coincidence that an American cardinal played a crucial role in the decree on religious freedom. The idea of ​​freedom and the way in which the religious impulse had taken shape in Europe (in ‘established churches’) apparently had little or no tolerance for each other. The stories from America, where things were completely different, fascinated and surprised the Europeans. They didn’t know what to do with it, just as Europeans still find it difficult to deal with the completely different way in which public and private religious discourse takes place in America. The surprise concerned two aspects in particular: How was it possible that in a state where the government did not give a dollar cent to any religion, that religion still seemed to flourish there ? After all, the established churches in Europe had always maintained that state support was necessary because otherwise people would follow their ‘worldly impulses’ and exhibit godless behavior. Apparently this was also possible without a subsidy. The other point of surprise was that a democratic country (which was also unique at that time) where religion was completely free, had not fallen into political chaos and ruin within a few decades. In short, how did those Americans do that? In 1831, the Minister of the Interior of France sent two of his most gifted officials to America, officially to investigate the prison system (which at the time was far ahead of its time and extremely humane), but in reality these two young men were the ones in the above questions. interested. Their travel report has caused a sensation. It simultaneously provides a picture of life in America 40 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights , and at the same time it holds a mirror up to Europe.

Alexis de Tocqueville

On April 8, 1831, two young men, Gustave de Beaumont (28) and Alexis de Tocqueville (26), took the boat in Le Havre and crossed over to the New World. Officially to study the American prison system, in reality to take a closer look at the revolutionary democratic experiment that had been going on in the United States of America for about half a century now; experience firsthand what that is like, living in a society where everyone is ‘equal’ before the law and where religion is free. After all, the Ancien régime  was dead and buried, but a stable and satisfactory new form of government would not get off the ground, and certainly not in France. The tug-of-war between revolutionaries and conservatives knew no end and whenever someone came up with something new, a reckoning with the old always crept in. Each revolution thus carried with it the seeds of its own downfall. According to both young men, it was high time that these contradictions were overcome. They hoped to find inspiration in the ‘New World’. After all, a democratic republic had been functioning there for almost half a century, on a constitutional basis, whereby the freedom of the citizens was guaranteed through the famous Bill of Rights of 1791. On May 11, they arrived in New York and traveled for almost ten months. them through the then literally limitless areas of the North American continent. They sailed down the Hudson on the steamboat, tasted – literally – the local cultures, were amazed by many buildings, plowed through archives, and had an endless series of conversations with Americans from all walks of life. From presidents (including John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and the sixth and seventh presidents of the US respectively) to black slaves, hunted Indians and adventurers on their way to the ‘Wild West’. Gustave was very social, could strike up a conversation with anyone and made a drawing if necessary; Alexis listened, observed and scribbled entire notebooks full of notes. In September 1832 they returned to France and began editing a lengthy report on the prison system in the USA (2 volumes). More importantly, both recorded the impressions of their journey in the form of a book. Gustave published a two-part novel in which he denounced slavery and racial segregation (Gustave de Beaumont, Marie, ou l’esclavage aux Etats-Unis , 1835) and Alexis distilled a political bestseller from his numerous notes: De la démocratie en Amérique .11 In form it is an account of what he observed in the New World, in content it is a socio-political manifesto for the Old World. Tocqueville used his trip to America to reflect on the future of France (and wider Western Europe). In the US he has seen the democratic form of government in action and is enthusiastic about the way the people are mobilized to ‘govern themselves’. He sees citizens everywhere from all walks of life – all equal before the law – organizing themselves into 1001 associations for just as many goals. Thesocial capitalthat was present in society has been activated. The secret of democracy in America, according to Tocqueville, lies in the fact that it is both fully participatory and representative. This makes it a vital form of government and at the same time armed against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ (the party/president who gains all power with the help of half + 1), something Tocqueville and many Europeans feared. Now, my point is not whether Tocqueville’s analysis is correct – I leave that to the numerous sociologists, philosophers and political scientists who still disagree to this day – but about the way in which Tocqueville, within this framework, discusses the role of religion. He sees a vital religiosity, which is present almost everywhere, but which, to his surprise, nowhere hinders the construction of a free democratic society. On the contrary. Religion and democracy go hand in hand in the US. Tocqueville couldn’t think about that. He found that a relief, that much is clear. He was so different in his home country, France. There, with the demise of theAncien Régime, the Roman Catholic Church had lost its direct political power, but during the reconstruction the old positions were soon taken again and there was a tug-of-war between the church apparatus and the secular government for power over life. of the people broke out again and, it seemed, even more fiercely than before. The conservative restorative forces relied on the church, and the progressive republican forces had a strong anti-clerical slant. In Tocqueville’s view, this struggle paralyzed political thinking and hindered the creation of a real democracy in Europe. He is pleasantly surprised that apparently things can be done differently, in fact that religion could play apositiverole in public life, which means that it is even a ‘political instrument’ (that’s what he also explicitly calls it), but that this is not leads to a bitter power struggle, but to society building. Religion and freedom can thus be mutually supportive rather thanmutually destructive. How did those Americans manage to do that? It is worthwhile to take a closer look at his description, analysis and evaluation of this. Europe looks in the mirror of America and tries to learn something from it.

Religion and freedom as allies

“When I arrived in the US, the first thing that struck me was how much this country is defined by the religious aspect.” This is how Tocqueville begins his analysis of the relationship between religion and democracy. Religion was literally everywhere. But in a completely different way than in Europe: ‘In our society I see the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always moving in opposite directions. Here I discovered that they are very closely connected and together they rule over the same land.’12 This observation sounded so unbelievable to European ears that Tocqueville shows his readers step by step how he arrived at this conclusion. At first he himself did not believe that it was possible that religion ‘could be everywhere’ and yet ‘freedom was not threatened’. This immediately reveals his European perspective. After all, the American perspective on the same state of affairs would be formulated slightly differently: How is it possible that ‘religion is everywhere’ and at the same time there is freedom of religion? When he starts investigating this, he is of course the first to come up with the legal separation that ensures in American legislation that church and state are not at each other’s throats, as in Europe. He clearly describes that thisdoes notmean that the church is not concerned with what happens in public spaces. On the contrary. They have a very prominent presence there, but without any support from the state. They enter it on the basis of freedom of association and opinion and insofar as they do so as a ‘group’ (church), then this is still a form of ‘self-organization of free citizens’. The creation of thewall of separationhas not so much ‘put religion in its place’, tamed it, as most European Enlightenment philosophers had in mind when they built their arguments for these types of legal articles, but that ‘wall of separation’ has actually given religion every opportunity to develop. Protected by this, it comes into its own. Tocqueville has seen and experienced this with his own eyes during his visits to religious meetings and conversations with members and leaders of most diverse faith communities. Freed from thereprehensible liaisonwith state power, religion flourishes and bears fruit, not only personally, but also for society.

Religion simply interferes with how people live, preachers preach certain values, denounce others, and try to influence the public debate. Participating in the public debate is even desirable for the state, Tocqueville believes based on what he has seen in America. In America, democratic freedom and religion reinforce each other. They are allies. In a marginal note, Tocqueville puts it with a beautiful image: “American freedom was born from the womb of religion and still lies in its arms.”13 The church leaders he spoke to made him understand that they did not experience this separation as a regression at all, but as a step forward. They do not try to bend society to their will or mold people’s consciences with the ‘artificial power of laws’. On the other hand, they are very interested in public life, but they want to influence it by touching the souls of people. Not by imposing laws on people, but by educating them to become morally conscious citizens, by teaching them ‘mores’ (customs and customs). In Tocqueville’s eyes – and to what extent he takes his wish for reality, I leave open – this is precisely the essence of religion. It is a source of moral strength. Religion gives hope and protects people from abuse of their freedom. In this light, the differences of opinion between the different sects of Christianity are reduced to ‘details’, which are still debated among themselves (even fiercely), but which do not affect living together itself. In itself, the contrasts between religious movements in America are no less great than in Europe – on the contrary: the Protestant ‘sects‘, as he calls them, ‘are innumerable’ and do not agree at all with each other on theological matters. But by granting everyone equal freedom to practice their religion, they had apparently all come to terms with the fact thatnone of the disputing groupshad been assigned the position of the established (state) church. Tocqueville idealizes a bit here, but that isfor the sake of it. For his French readers, who are mainly interested in the Catholic Church, he argues that even the Roman Catholic ‘sect’, which had grown considerably since the foundation of the state (particularly through immigration from Ireland), adopted this essentially Protestant model. had inserted, and with good effect. All these ‘sects’ preach different dogmas, but teach the same morals.

He therefore without any hesitation calls religion the ‘most important political institution in the country.’ However, this ‘political institution’ is completely independent. It is not institutionally linked to the country’s political government. Religion as popular educator no. 1, that is. She teaches the people to deal with freedom. If religion (he means the moral component) did not keep them in check, they would start to abuse it and freedom would soon be over (Tocqueville means: then a tyranny of the majority will install itself). Fortunately, there is religion that provides direction and curbs where necessary. Religion also curbs the imagination about what you could individually do with your freedom, so that people do not come up with extravagant things and, if they do come up with them, they certainly do not dare to implement them. According to Tocqueville, this is a good thing, because otherwise man would quickly destroy himself and society. There would be no place for the Marquis de Sade in Tocqueville’s kingdom of liberty.

We recognize the age-old view: Religion is the guarantor of the moral order, with the subtext: without religion man degenerates and becomes worse than an animal. In Tocqueville’s defense, many Enlightenment thinkers agree with him. Also John Locke, for example. This pragmatic-utilitarian appreciation of religion was dominant in classical antiquity. We saw it emerge in the first chapter, when the Jesuits tried to explain Chinese culture/religion: they called civil religion a general morality that is anchored in a form of belief in God. If this were the deepest social meaning of religion, then things would be sad. After all. This use of religion does not require religious commitment at all, but conformity suffices. A society based on this is characterized by an institutionalized functional hypocrisy. At least that’s what Roger Williams in Providence would have called it before he turned in his grave. In Rhode Island he had understood better than many political philosophers after him that if you look at religion in this way, you not only instrumentalize the religious impulse, but ultimately also systematically discriminate against those who do not profess to any religion. After all, by qualifying religion as the guardian of morality and the educator par excellence of the people, you at once disqualify the non-religious or a-theistic person as amoral or immoral. Where Roger Williams had it explicitly included in the laws of Rhode Island that ‘a simple promise to tell the truth’ was also sufficient for the General Court (equivalent to an ‘oath sworn on the Bible’) precisely to avoid that discrimination, Tocqueville notes , that he had read a newspaper report stating ‘that a judge had refused testimony in advance because the witness stated that he did not believe in God.’ Tocqueville reports that this news item was published without any comment, to demonstrate how much Americans experienced democracy and the Christian religion as one indivisible whole. That was certainly the strength of that state, but Tocqueville does not think that is completely normal. ( read the quote here )

According to Tocqueville, religion is indispensable precisely because America is a democratic state. What he actually means, although he eschews this level of cynicism, is that you can turn people into good citizens much more easily through the religious undercurrent than by looking for the real sources of morality. Religion is a kind of shortcut to get people to behave morally desirable. The real sources of morality are there and they do not coincide with religion in Tocqueville, but they are much more difficult to reach. This suspicion is confirmed by one of his most controversial bon mots , namely ‘that despotism can do without religion, but freedom (read: democracy) cannot’. After all, despotism can impose the desired morality, democracy cannot. In a democracy you have to make people enthusiastic about it, you have to convince them. According to Tocqueville, religion is a very efficient means for this. Religion is useful. According to Tocqueville, this is also an insight shared by all great statesmen of all times. It is clear that an instrumentalization of religion is taking place here.

Les habits du coeur et de l’esprit

If this were the only thing Tocqueville had to say about it, I would end on this critical note and continue the line of thought on my own. However, it is as if Tocqueville senses that his analysis could be interpreted very flatly. So he inserts a passage describing what he actually means when he talks about ‘morality’. The piece, actually only one paragraph, precedes the long explanation about the paramount importance of religion for democracy in America. Here he explains what he means when he uses the word ‘moeurs’ (rendered in the English translation as ‘ mores ‘), namely not only morals and customs (“les habitudes du coeur”), but also the various basic principles, intuitions , views and ideas that exist among people and the ideas on the basis of which intellectual customs and traditions develop (“les habitudes de l’esprit”), in short, the entire moral and intellectual condition of a people. ( Read the quote here ) In English:  habits of the heart and habits of the mind . In my opinion, this whole, this interplay of head and heart, this moral and intellectual sensibility that is expressed in a certain self-evident shared behavior, could also be referred to as culture, or more old-fashioned: civilization. By this I mean – see chapter 1 – everything that man ‘adds’ to the natural impulses that arise from his physical existence as ‘homo sapiens’ and with which he does not so much decorate his life, but gives it a human character. Also in America, so hyper-individualistic in its religious experience, and with legislation that formally keeps state and religion apart, we again encounter the phenomenon that cult and culture are so strongly linked that they cannot be separated. can be seen separately. Due to the prominent way in which religion in America manifested itself in public space and in civil society, it was almost impossible to distinguish between the two when Tocqueville visited. What is typical about this recurring aspect of religion is that it is so difficult to put your finger on, especially because for many believers it is not the core of the religion. Many believers themselves also say: oh, that’s not the point, those are just side issues, but for society the side issues, the side effects of religion, the peripheral sensitivity seem to be of great importance for stability. In other words: the habits and customs that express themselves in certain behavior (role patterns of women/men, views on property, ideas about clothing, work and leisure, appreciation of games and sports, attention to education, social commitment), in short: the habits of coeur and de l’esprit,that grow over time (culture as a cumulative evolution) are fundamental to the survival of a society as a society. If there is a shared culture, then apparently one can safely disagree about the articulation of the core of the faith. Living together as people is not threatened by it.

One more comment: The religion that Tocqueville finds everywhere in America, and about the depth of which he does not wish to comment, naturally consists almost entirely of variations of the Christian religion, and then largely with a Protestant twist . so that we must beware of generalizing the way in which the ‘religious question’ was settled there to ‘all forms of religion’. The warning at the end of Chapter 2 returns. For religious movements that adopt a Protestant-Christian profile, the combination of free exercise and no-establishment seems to have led to a neutralization of the potential for violence that existed in the conflicting ‘sets of beliefs’. The question remains, of course, whether this also helps religious expressions of a completely different nature. I am thinking of a more communal and ritual-oriented spirituality, as is often characteristic of Roman Catholic spirituality, not to mention Eastern religiosity. And what about the expressions of free exercise of religion based on Islam that are causing so much commotion in the Western world ? Or should all religiosity be shoved into the mold of the Protestant concept of religion, as is constantly done today without much thought. If the mold does not fit, it becomes a Procrustean bed and – detonating the metaphor – the parts that are cut off will take on a life of their own. In any case, that doesn’t seem wise to me.


At the end of our search for ‘religion’ and how it relates to freedom, the question of ‘what is religion and how does it actually work’ has still not been answered. That wasn’t the intention either. I do think that a number of characteristic elements have emerged that require our attention when we talk about religion today. These elements relate to two major question complexes. Firstly, a social issue. How do people with very different views on life live together peacefully and constructively? This problem seemed to be settled by ‘freedom of religion’, which, through its legal anchorage in the constitution (or Human Rights), would safeguard the philosophically plural society by removing the ‘fuse from the powder keg’. This has de facto proven to be problematic. Religious signs in society continue to create tension. An attempt is being made to overcome this by ‘more legislation’, ie further legal regulation of matters of religion. An attempt is made to control, manage, or at least curb religion, while at the same time claiming to guarantee its freedom. There is some tension there. The many appeals to the Supreme Court demonstrate this. Secondly, we kept coming across the deep intertwinement of ‘religion and culture’. I think the tension just mentioned has everything to do with this. The freedom rights regulated a plurality in philosophies of a certain type (we called it ‘Protestant-Christian’) not of any religion and underneath the religious plurality there was still a shared culture. As a result, the sense of community was nourished and the religious strife could no longer cause deep division here. The non-religious also shared this culture. Since globalization and especially since the various waves of migration, that cultural floor beneath the philosophical diversity has disappeared. This means that there is also ‘just’ a lot of cultural friction in society. Declaring the multi-cultural society bankrupt, as has happened with so much fuss, does not help people much. Then an alternative will have to be found, because the tensions are still there. And – as our analysis suggests – because of the close interrelationship of religion and culture, a cultural tension can easily take on a religious color and vice versa (e.g. headscarf, nativity scene). We are not looking forward to a clash of cultures fought with religious zeal. So it is time for a current reflection on religion in our society, with special attention to freedom rights and the cultural embedding of religion.

© Dick Wursten: fair use policy : ie all use is permitted provided the source is mentioned.


  1. “ My whole life is best served by sorting things out, that is, there is a D. Medicinae with a second child and 8. Children, and a family member. Captain, a Niederteutscher Kuchenbecker, a Apothecker, Glassblaser, Maurer, Schmidt, Wagner, Schreiner, Küfer, Hutmacher, Schuster, Schneider, Gärtner, Bauern, Näderinnen, &c. in all etlich und 80. Personen, ausser dem Schiffvolck. Solche nun sind nicht nur ihrem Alter (massen unsere älteste Frau 60. Jahr, das jüngste Kind aber nur 12. Wochen alt were) und nunerwehnten Handthierung nach unterschieden, sondern auch different Religions and Wandels, daß ich die Schiff, welche sie anhero lagen , not unfüglich mit der Archen Noä vergleichen könte, wofern nicht mehr unreine, als reine (vernünfftige) Their darinnen befindlich. Unter meinem Gesinde habe ich, die es with the Romans, with the Lutherischen, with the Calvinischen, with the Widertäufferischen, and with the English Church halten, and now a Quäcker.” source: FD Pastorius,  Sichere Nachricht auß America, Wegen der Landschafft Pennsylvania, von einem Dorthin Gereissten Teutschen, dato Philadelphia, den 7. Martii 1684, p. 2 Cited by Weaver 2013, p. 303.
  2. Pastorius writes to his German supporters, who probably heard a sneer at the non-pietists in the comment that there were more ‘unclean’ than ‘clean’ animals on the boat. The use of the term ‘Gesinde’ (where I translated ‘fellow travellers’) can also easily be interpreted pejoratively. Just one letter away from ‘Gesindel’
  3. Umständige Beschreibung Pennsylvaniae , 1686, p. 34-35. Pastorius accuses the preachers of excelling in ‘buchstäbliche Recitirung’.
  4. “[T]he great American experiment still challenges religious believers to realize that the denial of government power over the Church resulted not from a depreciation of religious faith but from a profound appreciation that religion was too important to be left to politicians, too precious and necessary to a vibrant society to be made the tool of government manipulation.”(Curry, Farewell, p. 5)
  5. “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the  Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle  them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
  6. “Finally, as such tax is against the Spirit of the Gospel, as Christ for Several hundred Years not only without the aid of Civil Power, but against all the powers of the earth, supported and defended it, as religious Establishment has never been a means of Prospering the Gospel, as no more faithfull men would be called by it into the Ministry, as it would not revive decayed Religion nor stop the Growth of Deism, nor serve the Purpose of Government, and against the Bill of Rights, your Petitioners trust that the wisdom and Uprightness of your Honorable House will leave them entirely free in Matters of religion and the manner of Supporting its Teachers.” Cumberland County Petition (1785
  7. “But it is said that Religion is taking it’s flight, & that Deism, with it’s bainfull Influence is spreading over the State; If so, it must be due to other causes and Not for want of Religious Establishment. Let your laws punish the Vices and Immoralities of the times, and let there not be wanting such men placed in authority who by their pious Examples shall recommend Religion:& by their Faithfulness shall scurge the Growing Vices of the age: Let Ministers manifest to the World that they are Inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon them that office: that they seek the Good of Mankind, and not worldly Interest: let Their Doctrine be scriptural and their Lives upright; then shall Religion (if Departed) speedily return, and Deism be put to open shame and its dreaded Consequences speedily removed.” George County Petition
  8. James Madison, Notes on Debate on Religious Assessment,  December 23-24, 1784
  9. Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State . Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
  10. James Madison’s original proposal (1789) stated: “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. The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. The people shall not be restrained from peacefully assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the Legislature by petitions, or remonstrances, for redress of their grievances.”
  11. The 2010 critical edition (4 vols.) can also be consulted online : Alexis de Tocqueville,  Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, 4 vols.  [1835], ed. Eduardo Nolla. For the French text and especially for the additions in the manuscript, I consulted the printed version of the same publisher from 1990
  12. When I arrived in the United States, it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eyes. As I prolonged my journey, I noticed the great political consequences that flowed from these new facts. I had seen among us the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty march almost always in opposite directions. Here, I found them intimately joined the one to the other: they reigned together over the same soil. (book 1, vol 2, p. 479 – ch. 9 Of the principal causes …) This also includes the other quotes.
  13. ‘So religion, which among the Americans never directly takes part in the government of society, must be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use of it.’ In the margin of this observation, Tocqueville wrote in the manuscript: ‘American liberty was born in the bosom of religion and is still sustained in its arms.’ (In French: ‘ La liberté est née dans le sein de la religion et est encore soutenue dans ses bras ‘ (Nolla, 1990, p.227, note k.)
  1. it’s not the right to be able to publicly express one’s religious views/habits anywhere, at any time
  2. The title of J.E. Gardiner’s Bach book: “The castle of heaven” refers to this church