The Connection Between Heresy and Political Liberty

A strikingly disproportionate number of notable theologians who influenced the American Founding and establishment of political “republicanism” were theological unitarians. These figures, British and American Whigs, were instrumental in arguing on behalf of the American Revolutionary cause and in convincing the populace that political liberty was a God-given “inalienable” right. These theologians also, in large part, shaped the personal religious creed of America’s key Founders.

None other than Mark Noll, the preeminent scholar of America’s religious history has noted “[i]t was only when Christian orthodoxy gave way that republicanism could flourish.” A characteristic feature of Founding era republicanism was the institutional separation of church and state and the recognition of liberty, especially religious liberty, as an inalienable right.

Viewed in historical context, the logical connection between religious heresy and political liberty becomes evident. Church and state were once one in Western Civilization. Protestantism itself was a “dissident” movement and as such, dissident Protestants were subject to terrible mistreatment by the Roman Catholic Church or other dominant Protestant sects. And it was through this experience of mistreatment that dissident Protestants first began to argue for religious and political liberty. The theological unitarians, because they believed in what the orthodox considered soul damning heresies, were the most dissident of the dissidents. Think of John Calvin having Michael Servetus burned at the stake simply for publicly denying the Trinity!

As such unitarian theologians who risked death by publicly proclaiming their secret religious convictions had compelling reasons to argue for the separation of church and state and the establishment of religious and political liberty.

In any event, I hope this serves as a partial answer as to why I think studying religious disputes, heresies, Trinity denial, etc. is relevant to the history of America and American liberty.

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12 Responses to The Connection Between Heresy and Political Liberty

  1. James Hanley says:

    I haven’t been following these debates closely, so perhaps this question is naive or has already been answered.

    King of Ireland claims that liberty stems from imago dei. Now I’m not sure if he’s saying this is the sole, or the primary, or an additional, source of liberty. And while I can see how imago dei can support general claims to political liberty, does it logically lead to claims of religious liberty? That is, I can even see how it could be used to support claims of religious liberty within a general Christianity, to accept Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, etc. (But then of course we run into the problem of what’s acceptably orthodoxish enough.) But would it support religious liberty for those who are clearly outside the religious tradition that gave us the imago dei concept; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Animists, etc.?

  2. James,

    To understand the whole discussion you would have to go to AC and read that last few posts. With that said, a simply answer is that yes some people would interpret religious liberty as part of the right to liberty. Others would point to the Old Testament Jewish law and say no way. I am part of the line of thinking that those restrictions were for Israel as that time as God’s people. I would also say that giving them the law was not God’s original intent. Simply put, he gave Adam and Eve the choice(in my view allegorically) to worship him or not why should we not give that right to others? The only restriction on them was that they had to worship him of they were going to be allowed on his property. When they rejected him the were evicted for trespassing.

    My view that is. The other thing here history wise is that there were numerous other rights that were enjoyed beyond religious freedom that people credit to the Enlightenment that were first discussed during the Investiture Controversy according to Brian Tierney. I am going through a review of his book on the subject right now at AC to see if he is right. From what I read so far he makes a compelling case.

  3. The historical answer to your question would be in the late scholastics that seem to have promoted that freedom for the natives of America. I have seen that claimed but have not read Vitrola or Las Casas myself so I cannot verify it.

    I commented at AC that this is the avenue Jon should right his book on. The evolution of religious freedom and the role that heretics played in that they wanted to be free to believe what they wanted to believe. Funny that Locke did not extend it to atheists though. At least not publically.

    Great question.

  4. James Hanley says:


    IIRC, Locke didn’t even extend it to Catholics, although it’s been a long time since I’ve read his letter on toleration.

  5. nadezhda says:

    Correct. For political reasons, for both Catholics and atheists. The simple version of the argument: For Catholics, it was the dual loyalty problem. For atheists, you couldn’t take their word because they didn’t believe in a God who was the ultimate source and enforcer of moral obligations. So you shouldn’t out-and-out persecute anyone for their beliefs (conscience can’t be forced, etc.), but Catholics and atheist shouldn’t be allowed meaningful participation in the political system. They’d just tossed out a Catholic king, remember, for his attempts to promote “popery and arbitrary rule”. So the political dimension of Catholicism was at the forefront of English considerations.

  6. Did not know that about the Catholics. Real tolerant guy? Every two steps these guys took forward was followed by a step back.

  7. Jim Babka says:

    My opinion… Imago Dei is just the first, chronologically, but the second, philosophically, of a series of Old Testament lessons on behalf of political liberty. The first philosophical lesson is actually in Genesis 3, where we learn that God openly and generously provided contingent (often called, “free”) will.

    Someday, I really hope to get to the vast subject of political liberty in the Bible, and expand on these thoughts. Every time I read Jon Rowe’s writing, “Political liberty cannot be found in the Bible,” I’m tweaked to do it, but still cannot find the time. But the scriptures are far from silent on the matter.

    But James H, to answer your question, the temptation and fall story of Genesis 3 would, IMHO, indicate tolerance for diverse religious belief.

    I would differ with KofI, quite modestly, in the belief that the rules only applied to Israel. One cannot rule out the role of reason in interpretation of these matters. My line is much fuzzier. Many of the rules applied to the ancient Hebrews as “Yahweh’s chosen people,” would not apply in a civic sense, but would now transfer to the church — the ancient civil order being a guide and a symbol of a present _voluntary_ communion. So, for example, the death penalty, which is used frequently in Leviticus, and to our modern mind, overused, would likely be a type (in the symbolic sense) of excommunication.

  8. OFT says:

    Jim, I will do a post on this subject as well. From the Orthodox side, I will say the connection with Israel’s liberty and ours, starts at Common Law. Alfred the Great in the 9th Century was the first to attempt to codify a set of guidelines based on the Ten Commandments, and Gospel, for the various sheriff’s, judge’s, etc.

    It actually started earlier by Christians, but Alfred is generally the one recognized as the main founder of Common Law. Alfred even translated parts of Scripture.

    Why no Orthodox Christian has placed Natural Law in its subordinate position, and linked unalienable rights with the Scriptures has eluded me.

    The connection with Common Law, to the Founding Fathers, is in our documents of religious liberties, from: The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, Belcher’s Proclamation, Thomas Prince, Dr. Benjamin Colman, et al. Most of the sermons were election sermons preached in the General Assembly, and in “seminaries of learning” such as Harvard.

    The American Blackstone, Joseph Story, links the Bill of Rights to Colonial Charters, Laws, and State Constitutions:

    § 980. “In the next place, a bill of rights is important, and may often be indispensable, whenever it operates, as a qualification upon powers, actually granted by the people to the government. This is the real ground of all the bills of rights in the parent country, in the colonial constitutions and laws, and in the state constitutions.”


    Thus, without elaborating on this subject; there is much there, the connection from the Bill of Rights to the Scriptures. Natural Law enforces the same idea, however from a less sure foundation.

  9. “Many of the rules applied to the ancient Hebrews as “Yahweh’s chosen people,” would not apply in a civic sense, but would now transfer to the church — the ancient civil order being a guide and a symbol of a present _voluntary_ communion. ”

    That sounds reasonable to me Jim. I just do not think it applies to society in general.

    I am doing some posts on a book review of Tierney’s book at AC right now. I know your time is limited but maybe you can stop by and chime in. I would like to see what you think.

    I saw your name in a facebook ad for something to do with Rand Paul on the radio or something like that. I thought to myself, “I know that guy!”

  10. OFT,

    Give me the link to the post when you do it.

  11. Jim Babka says:

    Yeah, that was me. I guest-hosted a radio show, and he was the most famous guest.

  12. What is your take on him?

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