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Widespread belief in the importance of religious freedom within a liberal democratic society developed over centuries of religious separation, conflict, discourse. Over the past five hundred years Western civilization has transitioned from a uniformly Christian bloc of nations into a set of states defined by religious diversity and built upon the principles of toleration and religious freedom. Three major forces drove that transformation: The violence caused by religious intolerance, the increasing value of free thought, and the success of religiously free states. Over time, all three of these historical forces led to the widespread belief in the importance of religious freedom within western society.
The first historical force that led to the original identification of religious freedom as a valuable right was the horror and devastation that Europe witnessed during the Reformation era as a result of religious conflicts. The widespread destruction that took place during such conflicts as the Schmalkaldic Wars, the French Wars of Religion, and the English Civil War showed Europeans how difficult it would be to preserve religious unity within their borders, which led some to question the value of religious homogeneity. The Thirty Years War, especially, led to the identification of religious tolerance as an alternative to the religiously-motivated violence when it concluded with the landmark Peace of Westphalia. Voltaire’s assessment that “Germany would be a desert strewn with the bones of Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists, slain by each other, if the Peace of Westphalia had not at length brought freedom of conscience” reveals how important the war, and the treaty that ended it, really were to the identification of religious freedom as an important civil right (Voltaire, “Toleration and Other Essays - Online Library of Liberty”). Historian Gordon Christenson similarly notes that the principle of religious tolerance had been included in previous Reformation-era treaties, but the Peace of Westphalia’s explicit use of the principle as a peacekeeping measure reveals that it had broken into mainstream political thought by the end of the war (Christenson, “Liberty of the Exercise of Religion in the Peace of Westphalia”)
As the dust settled after years of religious conflict, a second historical force also contributed to the widespread belief in the right of religious freedom. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Enlightenment thinkers reflected upon the Reformation wars and the state of European politics, and began to advocate for the freedom of thought and faith within political society. In 1669 Spinoza concluded that “a government would be most harsh which deprived the individual of his freedom of saying and teaching what he thought; and would be moderate if such freedom were granted” (Spinoza, “The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza,” 195), Two decades later, Locke came to a similar conclusion when his “Letter Concerning Toleration” specifically outlined the principle of religious toleration by asserting that “no private person has any right in any manner to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church or religion” (Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration,”). Though the identification of religious freedom as a fundamental right did not immediately lead to its universal adoption among western states, it did represent a significant advancement in the field of religious rights. Going forward, rulers and state builders were more conscious of religious toleration as a viable alternative to forcing religious uniformity within their borders. About a century later, this Locke sentiment was directly incorporated into the American Bill of Rights, which prohibits the creation of any law that might restrict the free practice of religion.
Over time the ideas of toleration and the freedom of thought became more widespread, which led a number of states to explore religious freedom as a principle upon which strong nations could be built. Among the first political leaders to embrace the principle of religious freedom was Roger Williams, who founded the English colony of Rhode Island after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As the colony grew over the next several years, he drafted a compact under which it could be governed. Smithsonian Magazine writes that “the most significant element was what the compact did not say. It did not propose to build a model of God’s kingdom on earth, as did Massachusetts...the compact did not even ask God’s blessing. It made no mention of God at all” (Smithsonian Institution, “God, Government and Roger Williams' Big Idea,”). Shortly afterward Williams traveled to England in order to secure a charter from an English Parliament that was itself in the midst of a Civil War. The charter was granted, and the committee that granted it “left all decisions about religion to the “greater Part”—the majority—knowing the majority would keep the state out of matters of worship. Soul liberty now had official sanction” (Smithsonian Institution, “God, Government and Roger Williams' Big Idea,”). The establishment of the Rhode island colony greatly benefitted the growing belief in religious freedom as a fundamental right because it proved that a political society defined by toleration could find success despite the lack of uniform religion. This idea heavily influenced the drafting of the United States Constitution, and over the next two centuries freedom of religion came to be a defining feature for liberal democracies.
Over the past five centuries, western civilization underwent a number of historical changes that led it to lose faith in the benefits of religious homogeneity and instead come to support freedom of belief and universal toleration. As it slowly began to understand the dangers of promoting state-led religious uniformity, the western world began to explore ideas of plurality and acceptance before eventually embracing them in political entities such as Rhode Island and the United States. Modern democracies still struggle to guarantee the right to freedom of religion at times, but after five hundred years of development western society at least recognizes it as a fundamental human right.
John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Jan. 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280
Gordon A. Christenson, “Liberty of the Exercise of Religion in the Peace of Westphalia,” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Vol. 21, 2012).
Locke, “Letter Concerning Toleration”
Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza
Voltaire, Voltaire. Toleration and Other Essays. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1755. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/mccabe-toleration-and-other-essays.
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