I was at a church service Sunday and, during one part, the program instructed people to “stand or kneel.” People did one or the other. I don’t know why people chose to stand or kneel. But no one was upset either way. It was all peaceful and beautiful.
I like to think of this diversity of expression as protective of the freedom of conscience. To be sure, any private organization that wants to impose one way or the other is within its rights. The NFL can let players stand or kneel or impose one way.
But let us never give up on the idea of the freedom of conscience. It is the foundation of all freedoms. It’s the idea that gave rise to everything we today call human rights.
The Bad Old Days
The ancient world only knew the ideal of unity. The same beliefs. The same religion. The same laws to enforce the one hegemonic will. The military was the model by which the rest of society was organized. Tribes were tolerated so long as they never mixed and never challenged the ruling class.
That new idea was freedom. Its core was the freedom of conscience. Compliance was the way, because the only means by which that idea can be realized was through the state, which presumed total power to enforce unity.
And with that idea came social stagnation. You stay in the station in which you are born: ruler, citizen, servant, merchant, slave.
That system eventually broke down because thinking men and women cannot forever live in cages. New religions came along that defied the notion that Caesar was a proxy for god. Foreigners tired of living under occupation. The central state proved itself unable to fulfill its promises, and the people revolted. The state lost its power.
One way broke down, but it took another 1,500 years before a different ideal came to replace the idea of unity. That new idea was freedom. Its core was the freedom of conscience. This notion was first tried in Europe due to exhaustion from the religious wars that had lasted centuries. It’s not worth it.
What if we let people believe what they want? What if the individual conscience can prevail as the motive force so long as no one is harmed? It could work. Not only that, maybe we can find value in a diversity of religious expression even if we regard the expression as false or contrary to what our own conscience dictates.
Voltaire in 1762 stated of Holland and Germany: “The Jew, the Catholic, the Greek, the Lutheran, the Calvinist, the Anabaptist, the Socinian, the Memnonist, the Moravian, and so many others, live like brothers in these countries, and contribute alike to the good of the social body.”
Thomas Jefferson echoed the same: “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.”
The good of everyone is served by letting everyone exercise their freedom of belief in nonviolent ways. Remarkable. This one idea flipped all known history on its head and forged a new way to think about the individual and society.
The new system worked. It turned out that unity was not necessary. Toleration improved life for everyone. A new wall was erected between the will of the leader and the rights of the people. And this wall thickened and grew higher over the centuries.
The freedom of conscience necessarily and eventually led humanity to new ways of thinking and living. The idea of human rights began to be applied to other areas. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of association. Freedom to trade, create, buy and sell, travel and move. The root was the same in every case: the core governing unit of society is located within the individual. The conscience. This, and not the will of the leader, is the guide.
The theory behind this idea grew ever clearer into focus during the Enlightenment. So persuasive was the idea that served as the core founding idea behind the United States. Religions that once aspired to build spiritual empires came around too and placed the rights of conscience at the core of even doctrine (where it remains today in, for example. Catholicism).
The economic stagnation began to give way to something new and spectacular: rising wealth. With that came technology, better lives for more people, the end of plagues, the movement of populations to the city.
Deirdre McCloskey, in her three-volume work, demonstrates the cause: it was the unleashing of the creativity of the human mind. The freedom to think new thoughts, dream new ideas, and put them into practice–guaranteed by law–gave the world these gifts.
The freedom of conscience necessarily and eventually led humanity to new ways of thinking and living. We learned to cooperate through commerce.
Benjamin Constant wrote in 1819 that this was the crucial difference between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns:
As a result, individual existence is less absorbed in political existence. Individuals carry their treasures far away; they take with them all the enjoyments of private life. Commerce has brought nations closer, it has given them customs and habits which are almost identical; the heads of states may be enemies: the peoples are compatriots. Let power therefore resign itself: we must have liberty and we shall have it. But since the liberty we need is different from that of the ancients, it needs a different organization from the one which would suit ancient liberty. In the latter, the more time and energy man dedicated to the exercise of his political rights, the freer he thought himself; on the other hand, in the kind of liberty of which we are capable, the more the exercise of political rights leaves us the time for our private interests, the more precious will liberty be to us.
We literally owe the whole of our material lives to this one institution, the freedom of conscience. It was the great insight to locate the juridical center of social, political, and economic life in the individual. That was the switch that changed everything.
We have a shared interest in regarding the conscience as sacred and inviolable. And it will continue to do so. Stepping back from that principle, forcing adults to speak or act contrary to what the heart and soul desires, even when no one would be hurt through their actions, and to do so in the name of God or country or the collective will of any sort, is contrary to everything we’ve learned and everything we’ve sought to achieve as humans for the last half millennium.
In the contest between the will of the mob, especially when fed by a popular head of state, and the conscience of one, the individual must always win, even if we do not agree. We have a shared interest in regarding the conscience as sacred and inviolable. It’s the basis of everything we truly love.
Stand or kneel: it’s your choice.