The Blood of Religious Liberty Enabled Freedom of Speech

Around the turn of the 2nd century, St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was condemned by a Roman tribunal to be torn apart and eaten by lions in the Coliseum.  What was his crime?  Ignatius was condemned because his speech was subversive to the Roman social order.  Having a public audience worsened his exercise of free speech; speaking freely in front of an assembled mob was the real crime.

Speaking and teaching the Gospels, according to the Apostles, of whom John was Ignatius' mentor, was the content of Ignatius' speech.  Moreover, Ignatius is credited with asserting the notion of the Church as universal and catholic, from the Greek katholikos.

But Ignatius's death sentence didn't chill his free speech.  He managed to preach in dozens of venues along the route of a condemned man from Syria to Rome.  There are at least seven letters from Ignatius, written during his death march, considered to be authentic, and perhaps another half dozen attributed but of disputed origin.  His epistles ranged from declaring the divinity of Jesus to the central truth of the Eucharist being the body of Christ to the need for hierarchy and structure in the Church.  All religious speech -- all about religious doctrine and religious polity.

The lives of the Christian saints, chronicled by three centuries of persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Roman oppressors, all had storylines akin to Ignatius's, although his prolific writings at that time made him more prominent than most.  The bloody and horrifying struggle to assert religious speech, assembly, and organization was relieved only by the conversion and intercession of Constantine in the 4th century.

Where were the secularists, apart from Socrates 700 years earlier, extolling the virtues of unfettered political speech?  There weren't any.  Because the most radical idea worth dying for was the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Christian theology remained the most compelling font of intellectual inquiry and discourse until the 17th century.  And in England, the wellspring of free political speech, religious protagonists schooled the monarchy, the establishmentarian Church, and political scientists about freedom of conscience and the merits of a pluralistic society.

Now, it is also true that over the ensuing 1,200 years since Constantine, religious speech, doctrine, and polity were co-opted by the state.  In the most remarkable contradiction of history, despite the cruel oppressions of free speech from the unholy alliances amongst monarchs and the Church, the origins of analytical thinking, intellectual rigor, and the exercise of free conscience came from theologians, apologists, and non-conformists within the Church.  From Tertullian to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther, battles for free speech, assembly, petition, and press, the exercise of publicly displayed freedom of conscience and pursuit of intellectual discourse -- all took place within the Church or by churchmen.

Yet we've become accustomed into thinking that rights to free speech and assembly arrived via an asteroid, spontaneous combustion, or even a virgin birth (as George Weigel quips in The Cube and the Cathedral) around the time of the 1688 English Bill of Rights -- an event unconnected to religious libertyNo, the struggle to secure freedom of conscience and the right to assemble predate the English Bill of Rights by some 1,500 years, in the Christian era.  It was religious speech, exercised and practiced in public forums, under the ever-present perils from boiling oil, gnarling beasts, evisceration, and crucifixion, that enabled freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and petition everywhere else, albeit a millennium later -- not the other way around.

Public exhortations on free speech from outside the Church came only as late in 1644 from John Milton in Areopagitica, predating his Paradise Lost by some 25 years.  Areopagitica was Milton's printed speech to Parliament on the necessity for uncensored license in printing tracts, essays, and opinions.  Milton acknowledged God's endowment to mankind of free will, the ability to reason leading to freedom of conscience and freedom to express one's voice without interference.  While his temerity in arguing for free speech at the high point of the English Civil War was laudable, even Milton fell short of heroics.  His screed, taking aim at Royalists and the establishmentarian English Church as well as the imagined resurgence of Roman Catholicism, had a convenient cover from his sympathies for the ascendant Cromwell and the Puritans.

So, while Enlightenment thinkers and secular politicians are usually given birthright for securing guarantees to free speech, they were largely on the sidelines, bystanders as the wars took their tolls inside the Church and upon religious separatists.  The entire 17th century in Britain was dominated by the religious Civil War and persistent instability, with unspeakable horrors visited upon non-conformists and dissenters, only partially quenched at the end of the bloody era by the 1688 English Bill of Rights and the 1689 Act of Toleration, with the English parliament granting limited religious accommodations to only a few non-conformists, conditioned upon a loyalty oath.

It was James II, a Roman Catholic and a champion of religious liberty, who issued a Declaration of Indulgence, or declaration of liberty of conscience, before he was exiled in 1688 -- at least a year before the English Bill of Rights.  By the time John Locke had written his Treatises, and free speech agitation had already arrived from the pulpits and pamphlets of hundreds of English religious dissenters, most notably Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, and other athletic Protestant dissenters, led by Baptist John Bunyan and Quaker William Penn, who first and foremost were religious thinkers, pursuing freedom of conscience in the face of imprisonment and ruin. 

We've been brainwashed into thinking that religious liberty -- independent, pluralistic religious practices and the free exercise thereof, now under attack by the contraceptives and abortifacients mandate under president Obama's health care plan -- exists solely from the magnanimous secular writers of the First Amendment.  Moreover, liberal elites insist that religious liberty can be suppressed, blithely ignored, with impunity.  They believe that First-Amendment protections for speech, press, and petition would remain unaffected while religious liberty is crushed.  That sequence is not only backward, but impossible.

It is religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the right to assemble in order to practice community religious tenets that preceded and framed free speech everywhere else and anchored the First Amendment.  Without religious liberty, the foundations under the First Amendment would collapse.

The right to privacy -- or in the vernacular, the right to be left alone, unmolested by the state -- and its handmaiden, the right to free expression and assembly, is wholly derived from 1,500 years of religious liberty on trial.  Who could have imagined that the right to privacy -- stemming from centuries to secure religious liberty -- underscoring Roe v. Wade and the specific argument used in Griswold v. Connecticut overturning a ban on contraceptives, is now being tossed aside under President Obama's health plan contraceptives and abortifacients mandate?

Obama's assault on religious liberty is not just some benign sharp elbowing to advance his socialist health care agenda.  If religious liberty can be dismantled, even piecemeal, wholesale erosion of the rest of the First Amendment rights won't be far behind.

Hat Tip to George Weigel.  His book The Cube and the Cathedral inspired the thesis behind this piece.