“What Limits Has Freedom of Religion?” by Henry Smith Leiper

There are multiplying evidences throughout the world of concern for religious freedom. Recent experience has shown only too conclusively that where this liberty is endangered all other liberties are likewise placed in jeopardy.

Important statements have been issued by many official and unofficial bodies. Among these particular weight attaches to that set forth by the Federal Council of Churches and the Foreign Missions Conference which follows at many points the notable declaration signed by leaders of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Britain several years ago. Neither say anything about limits to the freedom which they set forth as the right of all.

One of the uncomfortable problems which most of those who write and speak on the theme of religious liberty seem to avoid is raised by the existence in the world of such religions as Japanese State Shintoism and its Teutonic imitation, Nazism. (And much the same question is raised by Marxist atheism where it is fanatically and “religiously” held and propagated.)

At this particular time it is worth stressing the fact that it is impossible to dissociate from the religion of Nazism, practices which led to the sterilization or brutal extermination by the “master race,” of its enemies in such places as the notorious Buchenwald camp, now exposed to the gaze of an aroused and outraged world.

Must we, as advocates of religious freedom “unrestricted in any way,” demand unqualified freedom for those who insist on teachings which inevitably lead to such monstrous brutalities? It goes without saying that we would recoil from any such conclusion. But then, how do we propose to determine the limits which in actual fact we do set in our own thinking of religious freedom?

The problem is interestingly handled in a recent editorial in The British Weekly by Dr. Nathaniel Micklem, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. He deals in particular with the phrase in the Federal Council Foreign Missions Conference statement which reads: “Religious liberty shall be interpreted to include… freedom to bring up children in the faith of their parents.”

He comes to the conclusion for himself that it is right that parents with any faith—or unfaith—should be free to hold their convictions, to inquire concerning them and to discuss them. But he cannot grant that they have the right to propagate them or to insist, in the interests of their children, upon having their beliefs taught by the public educational system which, as now constituted in England, makes religious instruction a requirement.

Dr. Micklem bases his conclusion upon the conviction that the nation needs unity and that unity can be found only “when there is a general acceptance of a certain philosophy of life by the nation as a whole.”

But this view, in almost these exact terms, is held by the fanatical Nazi, Shintoist, or—for that matter—by devout, but persecuting Catholics in many lands!

The application of Dr. Micklem’s “conditions for religious freedom,” evidently requires some criteria of judgment and some public power to prohibit abuse. Each is expected to act on the basis of “a certain philosophy of life.”

He does not say what that philosophy shall be, but may be presumed to have in mind the basic moral precepts which Jew and Christian alike inherit. Again he does not say what organ of the public will is to enforce limitations, although presumably in his case he may be thinking of Parliament.

For those who believe that all truth and morality are relative and without cosmic foundations, there would seem to be no guide in this matter save expediency and various empirical tests. “What is not contrary to order and public welfare” is usually interpreted by the courts more or less empirically. Where extremes are involved that approach is simple enough. No man who claimed that his religion involved human sacrifice would be permitted to practice or teach it in any civilized land and society would quickly find a way, presumably through the courts, to render and enforce an absolute prohibition against him—without protest even from the most pronounced liberal. It is equally plain that no man in his senses would insist that liberty be given to people who wish to teach that the earth is flat, that plural marriage is obligatory, or that poison should be fed to all sick persons.

What emerges in every such empirical judgment is the acknowledgment that some things cannot be truly religious. In a rough and ready way the man in the street would say that what is obviously a moral outrage cannot be right no matter who thinks or says it is. Thus an approximation of some moral absolute is posited to determine “rightness.”

More attention needs to be paid to what our ancestors called the basic moral law of the universe. They thought of it as absolute and when we are pressed hard enough we do too. That it is inevitably involved wherever any kind of freedom is claimed seems clear.

One may find an analogy here helpful. Freedom to operate a motor car on the crowded streets of a modern city is granted to every normal person after due examination as to competence. But limits are set to that freedom by the traffic code. It is self-evident that unrestricted liberty on a high-speed road would soon cancel itself out at the same time that it destroyed the liberties of others.

In our kind of a world it has already been recognized that air traffic requires a universal code for the safety and convenience of all users of the air lanes over land and sea.

Just why it is thought reactionary or illiberal to recognize the necessity of a “cosmic traffic code” would be hard to say.

People capable of understanding that necessity should, without too much difficulty, accept the idea that in human relations a similar necessity has become apparent.

What is really needed that there may be world order is a “unity of life based on a commonly accepted philosophy” not in one country only, but in all the world. A religious freedom which would be dangerous to permit in England would be equally dangerous on the Continent or in the Americas. But it must be a philosophy in consonance with universal moral laws.

The Nazis rightly discerned that the exercise of Christian liberty endangered the unity of their racial state: but the conscience of the world supports the Christians of Germany who rebelled against the infamous “unity” of a state founded on Hitler’s ideas. What was wrong there was the kind of unity sought and the means chosen in seeking it. What was right was the exercise of a liberty which was intended to undermine the fascist kind of unity. The unanimity with which the decent world arrived at that conclusion is a witness to certain moral convictions more widespread in their acceptance than perhaps we had suspected.

The plain fact is that the concept of universal moral law has got to come back into common acceptance or there can be no liberty of any kind and certainly no order long enduring. And by that code all religions have to be judged as well as all other human interests and activities.

This is logical enough and hardly open to dispute by any man who accepts the notion of a purposeful universe with reason at its heart. But it does not solve the question of who is to define the moral law or who is to detect and prohibit infringements of it when they occur in the practice or propagation of religion.

The most prevalent modern heresy one sometimes feels is the denial of the universality of the Christian concept of moral order. But what else is there to offer a world which is seeking a basic principle of unity in its desperate need for order?

No concept of moral order is completely accepted anywhere much less universally accepted wherever one goes. Yet the Christian faith concerning the relationship of all human conduct to the will and purpose of God as made known in the moral law is more nearly universal than any other. It is the only worldwide concept that actually exists and the only one that has ever become worldwide—even though admittedly it is accepted by only a tiny minority in some lands and nowhere fully accepted by all.

It is a terrifying responsibility and the long history of intolerance and bigotry makes one shrink from seeing it lightly accepted. But where is there any alternative? Religious or civic or intellectual liberty will not regulate or limit itself. If the responsibility for finding principles of regulation is placed with wholly secular bodies the assumption of competence may easily be contrary to fact. And in deference to the view that most Americans hold with respect to the separation of church and state it seems clear that there is a gap to be bridged somehow between the determination of principle and its application to public life. The latter is clearly the prerogative of the government. Is it too naive to point out that the American government motto, inscribed on all our coins, is “In God We Trust”? The church collectively is dedicated to the worship of God, the interpretation of his will, the proclamation of his word. Political government owes to the church historically the whole idea of God’s relationship to those whom he endowed with inalienable rights.

The conclusion which seems most acceptable is therefore that religious freedom must be limited by the moral law. The ecumenical church is the best interpreter—although admittedly a finite and imperfect one—of that moral law. But government, recognizing the prerogatives of the churches and learning from them, is the agency which, through the courts, can alone be entrusted with the enforcement of such limitations as appear in the public interest. A case in point in our own country which illustrates this partnership in responsibility is the prohibition of polygamy among the Mormons of Utah. In the judgment of the ecumenical church polygamy is contrary to the moral law. The state accepts that judgment and through the courts limits the religious liberty of that minority among the Mormons which still claims as a part of its religious faith the right to more than one wife.

There is much more thinking to be done on this complex and controversial matter. What is here offered is but a tentative approach intended to stimulate others more competent than ourselves to set themselves the task of thinking through the apparent contradiction which arises when any one suggests that religious freedom be limited.

Henry Smith Leiper (1891 – 1975) was a Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionary. He served as the head of the Commission on Relations with Churches Abroad of the Federal Council of Churches in the 1930s. In 1938, at the first meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC), he was selected to be the new organization’s associate general secretary. In 1952 he became executive secretary of the Missions Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, and then in 1959 he become director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, where he remained until 1967.  From 1959 to 1971, he served as a field secretary for the American Bible Society.