Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed with the intermingling of religion and liberty in the United States during his visit in 1831. A French lawyer, de Tocqueville was in the U.S. to study the new American experiment. He returned home to write a book about his observations entitled Democracy in America. He observed that the American political system was not religious, nor did religion dictate the government of the country; however, religion was deeply rooted in the hearts of the people. Americans were religious without denomination or political mandate. This was 1831.
De Tocqueville cited the European philosopher point of view that “religious zeal…must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused.” In other words, they thought religion restricts liberty. Does religion rob liberty?
I personally identify as a religious person. I have been asked in many ways, by many people, at different times in my life, whether I felt restricted or enslaved by religion. At times and in different ways I may have felt that way, but not without feeling dishonest or guilty. There are behaviors warned against in gospel doctrine which are appealing to physical appetites, but the warnings, or rules, or commandments, are there for good reason. I have found through experimentation and natural consequence that I feel happier, more peaceful, more confident and able when I act in accordance with my religious code. Does it restrict me? Only in the way guard rails keep me from driving over steep embankments. True religion guards against harmful and unpleasant consequences; it guides a follower in the best paths, not always free from unfavorable events, but richest in long term benefit and growth. For me liberty isn’t harmed by religion, but rather it depends upon it.
A definition of religion, as I am using it here, may be necessary. Religion is a catch all term, including a way of perceiving and interpreting the world as well as various sects, or denominations, responsible for providing care and education to all who seek or are in need. Within religion there are factions of counterfeit truth, essentially the wolf in sheep’s clothing. True religion, by my working definition, includes sects and denominations which lift the heart and enlighten the mind of its followers. This includes all world religions. True religion does not mean one set of prescribed behavior required for salvation, which is the stewardship of gospel, but it does embrace and teach gospel principles and doctrine. Benjamin Franklin identified several points “fundamental [to] all sound religion” (Smyth, Writings of Benjamin Franklin, vol 10 p. 84) which I think are noteworthy:
- There is one God who is the creator and eternal manager of the universe
- As the creator and manager, God ought to be worshipped by all people
- While not in the presence of God, rendering service and benevolent action towards other people is how a person can honor god
- There will be post mortal accountability and stewardship reckoning with God for every person regarding the exercise of individual will and agency
I side with Franklin; I think these basic points will be found in all religions which uplift, inspire and edify. Because of variations on culture and personality the wording may vary slightly in how God is classified and personalized, and that is the prerogative of every person to define God and worship how they wish, but personally I feel that these four points are inherently natural and exist in all people. From that point on it is up to individual choice regarding what is believed.
Now to return to the question, does religion rob liberty? As I mentioned already, I don’t think so. Based on the four points I’ve taken from Franklin’s personal declaration of belief I think that liberty has to be something bestowed by the creator and manager of the universe. If He decides liberty should exist then it does; only God can truly give or take away liberty with any finality. Man can restrict or allow but he cannot give or take away liberty in an absolute manner, with possible exception of murder which terminates mortal liberty, but does not remove eternal liberty. As I believe God has granted liberty to all people of the earth, and religion (in its truest form) directs people to God and offers guidance from God, I can’t see how religion can interfere with liberty.
As with all matters we see through our own constructs and perspectives. I see through my own lens. I have pieced together my thoughts regarding the title question, and I am interested to hear what you think. Does religion rob liberty? If you feel inspired to write more than the comment box will allow, post a response to your own blog or Facebook page and link to it in the comment section below. I think this is an important discussion to have because of the heated debate over the appropriate role of religion and government in the United States. Where are the lines drawn and where should they be drawn when it comes to church, faith, religion, spirituality and the State? America was founded on religious principles. During the 20th century and continuing today there seems to be a shift away from religious principles in government. Is this necessary for liberty to increase, or does this lead to a decrease in liberty? Let’s discuss.