Religious freedom in America and the world: commentary on "religious conscience in colonial New England".

Author:Brewer, Mark D.
Position:Response to article by Robert T. Miller in this issue, p. 661

There is much with which to agree in Miller's article. Indeed we find it insightful, and strongly concur with his final sentence:

long before Europe had shaken loose her shackles of coerced religious conformity, the development of a fresh and more wholesome conscience brought forth by the end of the colonial period a wider freedom of religion, even in New England, than had been achieved anywhere in the Old World (p. 675). More will be said on our concurrence with this view momentarily. How America got to that "fresh and more wholesome" religious-political "conscience," however, is another matter, and on that score, we dissent from Miller on several points. The first is Miller's claim that "[r]eligious freedom, unlike so many other American liberties, is largely an indigenous product" (p. 661). The second is that there was something "paradoxical" about the fanatical, intolerant imposition of religious dogma in the early American colonial period (p. 665). A final point of dissent lies in our evaluation of seventeenth-century Puritan religious thought. While we agree with Miller's view that religious primacy and intolerance (outside of Rhode Island) were dominant elements in seventeenth-century New England, we also believe that the seeds of a free society were clearly evident in the thinking of both religious and civil leaders of the period. We consider these in turn, below.

First, Miller offers that "[r]eligious freedom, unlike so many other American liberties, is largely an indigenous product." If, by this statement, Miller means the concrete, social and political practice of religious freedom, we can concur to a large degree (although one must acknowledge the Dutch on this front as well). We will have more to say on this point toward the end of this essay. On the other hand, if Miller means by this statement that religious freedom as an idea--in the sense in which it took concrete, manifest form in the U.S. Constitution--first sprouted and grew on American soil, then we dissent. Religious freedom as an idea arguably first appeared several centuries earlier, in the very Europe Miller otherwise rightfully decries as having fallen into "religious wars ... of a particularly bloody nature"; they were indeed so, and as he also correctly notes, they were precisely so because of the perceived need for political and social uniformity (which he incorrectly terms "national unity," p. 661).

The idea of religious freedom, and vigorous arguments in favor of it, are to be found several centuries earlier, well before the New England colonists' initial attempts to establish their Godly societies in the New World. (1) They are to be found in Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pack's (1325 a.d.), and they episodically re-appeared for the next several centuries with increasing force, expansiveness, and philosophical sophistication, perhaps no where more so than the oft-overlooked First Treatise of Government (1689) by John Locke. Given the nature of religious belief (operating as it frequently does on the basis of...

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