What Is Freedom of Conscience?

Its long history in Europe and England prepared the American Revolution. Where has this trait gone?

Ted Eytan/Flickr
Ted Eytan/Flickr

I assume that conscience is a human trait widespread enough to be generally characteristic, not originating in culture though inevitably modified by it. Guilt and shame, and dread at the thought of incurring them, are clearly associated with conscience, which grants them legitimacy, and which they empower. Conversely, the belief that one’s actions are endorsed by conscience can inspire a willingness to stand against custom or consensus in matters that might otherwise be considered wrong or shameful, for example rebellion against the existing order.

The idea of conscience as we think of it is reflected in the Greek of the New Testament. It is to be found in Plato as self-awareness, a capacity for self-appraisal. In the Hebrew Bible, it is pervasively present by implication, an aspect of human experience that must be assumed to be reflected in the writing of Paul and others. In Genesis a pagan king can appeal to the Lord on the basis of the integrity of his heart and the innocence of his hands, and learn that God has honored his innocence and integrity by preventing him from sinning unintentionally. The king’s sense of himself, his concern to conform his conduct to the standard he brings to bear on it, which is a standard God acknowledges, is a kind of epitome of the concept of righteousness so central to the Hebrew Bible. That the king is a pagan, a Philistine, suggests that Torah regards moral conscience as universal, at least among those who respect and cultivate it in themselves.

Beyond the capacity to appraise one’s own actions and motives by a standard that seems, at least, to stand outside momentary impulse or longer-term self-interest and to tell against oneself, conscience is remarkably chimerical. An honor killing in one culture is an especially vicious crime in another. The effective imprisonment at forced labor of unwed mothers, or of young women deemed likely to stray, was practiced until a few decades ago in a Western country, Ireland, despite the many violations of human rights this entailed. One might expect it to have ended in any previous century, if consciences were burdened by it. Americans have just awakened to the fact that we have imprisoned a vast part of our own population with slight cause, stigmatizing them at best and depriving them of the possibility of a normal, fruitful life.

Conscience can be slow to awake, even to abuses that are deeply contrary to declared values, for example liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if conscience is at peace with such things, if it rationalizes and endorses them, does it still possess an authority that justifies its expression, since acceptance is as much an act of conscience as resistance is? After all, in this country, where freedom means that a consensus permits the actions and policies of government unless recourse is had to demonstrations, recall, impeachment, legal action, or rejection by voters, we are normally reconciled to things we may not approve of. Conscience obliges us—always fewer of us, it seems—to respect the consequences of elections, without which democracy is no longer possible. It is not always easy to tell a slumbering conscience from one that is weighing consequences.

People who believe that an unconstrained capitalism will yield the best of all possible worlds might earnestly regret the disruptions involved in it, the uncompensated losses suffered as a consequence of capital’s being withdrawn in one place to be invested in another, solely in the interest of its own aggrandizement. But how does one intervene in the inevitable? Cost-benefit analysis has swept the human sciences! It explains everything! Depending, of course, on highly particular definitions of both cost and benefit. I have never seen an estimate of the wealth lost when a town falls into ruin, nor any calculus of the wealth lost when a workforce is idled, over against the wealth created in consequence of these creations of poverty. What is the cost to the Chinese, who are never asked whether the benefits of factory work outweigh the loss of clean air, drinkable water, and the health of their children? That a loss is immeasurable is really not a reason for leaving it out of account. Impoverishment of populations on the basis of financial self-interest makes a joke of personal freedom. Yet we accept the legitimacy of economic theory that overrides our declared values. This is to say, the public conscience is not touched by grand-scale dispossessions because it is numbed by a dubious theory, and by the fact that real power, neither political nor legal nor inclined to notice politics or law except as illegitimate intrusions on its limitless prerogatives, has passed out of their control as they pass more and more deeply into its control.


Freedom and the sovereignty of individual conscience are ideas that, in early American culture and in precursor movements in England and Europe, arose together and informed each other in important ways. The great conflict in the Middle Ages, putting aside monarchical adventurism, baronial restiveness, and so on, was between dissident religious movements and the established Church. The question at issue was whether people had a right to their own beliefs. In the 13th century, two crusades and an inquisition were carried out in southern Europe against the large and influential movement called Catharism or Albigensianism, associated with Languedoc but also important in northern Italy. These people are still accused of strange doctrines and a world-hating cast of mind, as heretics have always been, but this was probably not true, of them at least, since they were associated with the troubadours and the courts of love, and since they were so deeply nonviolent that their prosecutors could distinguish them from others by a very simple test: Told to kill a chicken, a Cathar would refuse. They were defended by non-Cathars in the region in what became a protracted but effective war of extermination. These events established policy for the treatment of dissidents, also called heretics, in Europe for centuries.

It seems fair to wonder whether even terrible suppression is not, over time, a stimulus and a preservative. Whether Catharism persisted despite all is a difficult question, since the word was sometimes used polemically, and since its texts were so thoroughly expunged and its reputation so blackened that it would be hard to identify traces of its influence in subsequent history. But dissidence persisted. John Wycliffe, the 14th-century Oxford professor whose theological writing spread throughout Europe and remained influential in England into the period of the Reformation, was exhumed from his grave and burned as a heretic. Those associated with his teaching, known as Lollards, were burned as well, again into the period of the Reformation. It must have been conscience that made them and so many others act as though they were free despite the drastic constraints placed on their freedom. Conscience appears throughout history in individuals and groups as a liberating compulsion, though the free act is so often fatal.

Through it all, freedom of thought and belief became a powerful cause in its own right. It had scriptural warrant, which mattered more as translation and printing made the Bible more widely accessible. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. A marginal note in the 1560 Geneva Bible, the dissenters’ Bible, says the word faith here is to be understood as meaning conscience. That is, according to Paul there are “matters indifferent.” His examples are eating meat sacrificed to idols, drinking, observing holy days. Such things are neither right nor wrong in themselves, but occasions of sin for anyone who feels they are sinful to be done or to be omitted. Hamlet, that conscience-burdened man, carries the point too far when he says “for there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The obligation to act consistently with one’s conscience, which Paul intends as grounds for tolerance among Christians, had the effect of making the enforcement of religious conformity intolerable. It gave disputes about transubstantiation or auricular confession the highest seriousness for dissidents who could not accept these or any number of other doctrines and practices. Henry VIII, for all his supplanting of the pope, was fiercely determined to keep Catholic worship and teaching intact in the English Church. He was just as happy to persecute Protestant dissidents as Catholics, so tensions continued and took on a more political character because the king’s seizure of power was a political act.

My focus in this essay on the Anglo-American history with freedom of conscience reflects my own interests and limitations, not any assumption that these cultures were unique in engaging it or that they had a special gift for it. It emerged so potently among them as a fortunate consequence of accident and cataclysm, and of the courage and great learning that was characteristic of the period throughout Europe. Like all the loftiest ideals, it has never been realized anywhere in a pure and final form.

Under Edward VI and his protector, the Duke of Somerset, no one, Catholic or Protestant, was executed on grounds of religion. Edward (and/or Somerset) attempted to bring the English Church into line with the Reformation on the Continent, changing Latin into English, ending priestly celibacy, replacing the altar with the communion table, and removing icons from the churches and destroying them. Notably, they also more or less ended censorship and suppression of the press. Mary, Edward’s half-sister and successor, reversed all this and launched on her notorious burning of Protestant leaders. Elizabeth, less notoriously, executed Catholics, but as traitors, skirting the issue of religious persecution while subjecting them to a death much more horrendous than burning. The next regime that could claim to have executed no one on religious grounds was the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the middle 17th century. Cromwell was a dissident, a Puritan, though with no role in any church, whose government seems in many ways a continuation of reforms begun by Edward VI. He gave England its first written constitution, a terse document outlining the form of government, with a paragraph ensuring freedom of religion—to everyone but Catholics.

To say that freedom of conscience had and is having a difficult birth would understate the matter radically. For all the turbulence of British religious history, its issues were delimited, in theory at least, by the fact that it was a tempest among Christians, who shared basic assumptions, however passionately they felt their differences. In his letter to the Romans, Paul asks the new congregation, apparently divided by cultural and ethical differences between its pagan and Jewish members, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? It is before his master that he stands or falls, and the Lord will make him stand.” This is advice meant for members of a community of believers, people who accept servanthood as descriptive of their and their fellows’ relationship to God, and who see this relationship as personal in the sense that God loves where he loves and compensates for his servants’ failings by his grace. Ideally they have accepted a particular obedience, with origins in the laws of Moses, exemplified in the life and teachings of Christ. So much might the apostle see, or hope to see, in the early Church. But history tells us that no great effort has ever been required to narrow the circle of those who should be seen as God’s servants, whose errors would be made good by God’s grace and therefore should not be judged. We all know the enormities that have made themselves presentable to the Christian conscience, often enough campaigns of violence against other Christians. Sects and denominations still remember the injuries their ancestors suffered long centuries ago, and can still become indignant at the thought of them. They might also remember injuries they inflicted, if the comforts of identity were not diluted a little by such ventures into honesty.

Here is another thing Paul says in the letter to the Romans, still in the context of his thoughts on tolerance and the authority of conscience: “The faith you have, have as your own conviction before God.” That is, do not judge fellow believers and do not offend them. It may be fair to wonder whether this excellent advice has gone unheeded all these years because faith has tended to be a conviction shown to men, who, if we can trust Paul, are a good deal more fastidious than God.


I believe in the reality of conscience, having observed it in myself and others. I am a little surprised to find it disappearing before me as I write. Consider the word conscientious. It names a sensitivity to duty and obligation that is very widely felt, the basis of civilization, in all probability. We notice default because it is exceptional. We are all indebted to legions of strangers who show up to work every day and do what needs to be done. If they did not, presumably they would feel guilt or shame in some degree. They align their lives, more or less, with a standard internal to them, and are very worthy of respect in this regard. This fundamental respectability of people in the aggregate is the great resource of political democracy.

At the time of the English Civil War, Cromwell’s formidable army of common men held formal debates to determine the kind of government that should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly extraordinary moment. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience, was of the first order of importance to them, dissenters that they were. After the Restoration, their disputes and the habits and assumptions that surrounded them came to America, especially to New England, where the population was already deeply sympathetic to Cromwell, and where he had helped sponsor a colony, Saybrook, in Connecticut. American political thought, which seems so uncannily mature in its earliest expressions, in fact had a long history behind it. The Commonwealth under Cromwell, for all its problems, functioned better and let England thrive better than it did under the royal governments that succeeded and followed it, until William of Orange intervened to end the dynastic incompetence. He landed an army large enough to make his arrival an invasion, if history had chosen to call it by that name. Cromwell’s Commonwealth failed at his death because he had no appropriate successor. William of Orange followed him in establishing the primacy of Parliament.

So the thousands of refugees and immigrants who came to America, after the Cromwell years and the Restoration, had had the experience of watching or participating in the first modern revolution, and had seen government by a sovereign parliament as well. And they had felt once again the force of religious oppression. It is customary to look to John Locke and Edmund Burke to find the sources of American political thought. Locke’s family had been on the side of the Commonwealth and Cromwell in the Civil War, which is to say that affinity with his thought can have had as much, or more, to do with influences shared with him as with the impressiveness of his philosophy. One need not mention Diggers and Levelers, though there is no reason to dismiss them entirely from the less elegant strata of American opinion. The English Leveler John Lilburne, early-17th-century champion of liberty as a universal birthright, has been quoted in U.S. Supreme Court decisions and is credited with influencing the writing of the Fifth Amendment. No doubt such people had descendants here. As remarkable as the maturity of political thought in the colonies, certainly, is the readiness with which at least a very significant part of the population accepted the rationale for revolution. This is consistent with the idea that it would have been the reenactment of a deep and defining cultural memory. The American Revolution has been treated by some historians as lacking sufficient provocation, although the list of the king’s offenses in the Declaration of Independence is not unimpressive. And the liberalizations that are supposed, by some Burkean process of amiable concession, to have brought England to a place that mooted the colonists’ legitimate grievances are a little hard to discover.

Influence may have gone deeper still. John Wycliffe based his theology and his social thought on the intrinsically sacred human person, just as Jefferson did his in the preamble to the Declaration. Lovely old ideals, redolent of scripture, never realized, never discredited or forgotten, having their moment over against the corruptions of, say, plantation life. My theory would account for Jefferson’s fluency and passion in expressing values that he had never lived by, that Wycliffe himself had never seen realized, except perhaps in the Pauline brotherhood of some furtive conventicle.


While I am on the subject: I find the giant lacuna in American historiography, the colonial side of the Interregnum particularly, so strange as to exceed in interest most subjects upon which learned attention has actually fallen. There are taboos in history, unspeakable opinions. Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill, the greatest man of the 20th century, according to a poll I saw recently of American opinion. Did his famous stand against Hitler really amount to more than waiting for the colonies and the United States to step in, as they had done so recently in the first 20th-century war with Germany? Is it not condescending to tell people, whose maimed brothers were selling poppies in the streets, that though they might lose their sons, there would still be cakes and ale? Has anyone really read the Iron Curtain speech lately, and pondered how many of the worst policies for dealing with the Soviet Union in the postwar era are set out in it? And this in 1946, when Russia had not yet had time to reckon its truly staggering losses? Has anyone read up on Churchill’s social policies before the war, with their excruciating severities, to be suffered by those same classes who would fill the ranks of his armies? I know it is rude to raise questions about Churchill, and I think this is interesting, since we flatter ourselves that we are willing to question anything.

Conversely, it is somehow unrespectable to have an interest in Oliver Cromwell, who is stigmatized in a way that makes him a sort of latter-day Albigensian, a religious fanatic hostile to all life’s pleasures, and an autocrat besides. Stigma is a vast oubliette. Amazing things are hidden in it. Cromwell’s importance to American history, therefore to the history of the modern West, should be beyond doubt. I know that he is of great interest to certain specialists. But their work has not brought him the kind of attention that would make him accepted as a factor in the cultural history of New England, let alone the world at large. The French Revolution was Cromwellian, with certain gruesome elaborations. The guillotine may actually have a kind of melancholy glamour that has helped put Puritan Cromwell in the shade, historically speaking.

All this is relevant because it demonstrates the vulnerability of awareness to distortion and omission, not only in individual cases, a commonplace, and not only in the general population, but in important fields of scholarship, where exquisite resources have been hoarded up to make real and thorough inquiry as possible as such things ever are. I am eager to grant that there is a basic moral competence in people that makes conscience meaningful. It is entirely consistent with my theology to believe that this capacity for moral self-awareness is the God-given basis for the freedom and respect we owe one another. Yet I hesitate to grant that there is an equivalent intellectual competence that would allow conscience to be appropriately directed. Worse, I am persuaded that seeming failures of insight and understanding are in fact willed, that an active historical or scholarly conscience would not tolerate them. After the Iron Curtain speech, angry crowds surrounded Churchill’s hotel in New York. Stalin was not alone in considering the speech a declaration of war—in 1946, for heaven’s sake, before the ashes of the last war were cool. In the speech Churchill proposed the British Empire as de facto encirclement of the Soviet Union, urging Americans to sustain what Britain could not, for the advantage it would give us in a coming atomic conflict. From the side of wounded Russia, encirclement may have looked very like an iron curtain. Although Churchill did not foresee all the worst consequences of the Cold War, he did help to make them inevitable.

Why bother to be fair after all these years? It might be a salubrious exercise that would make us better able to be fair in the future. Perhaps our great investment in the legend of Churchill’s heroic wisdom helps us overlook the possibility that a little wisdom on our part might have helped to spare the world much grief and disaster, present and to come. To consider the possibility would be a significant act of conscience. All this suggests to me that freedom of conscience is more profoundly inhibited by prejudice and taboo, internalized by us all, than it is by laws and institutions. We can see that it is easily manipulated by subrational means, suggestion and repetition. It can be inappropriately invested, making us confident when we would be better served by doubt.


What do we lose when we ignore early American history and, to the extent that we notice it, mischaracterize it? The stigmatizing word that makes the North fall out of sight is Puritanism. The South seems to have been dominated by the plantation economy and chattel slavery that were typical of British and European colonies in the New World, and to have had no conspicuous peculiarities of the kind that came with New England’s history of settlement. Of course this distinction is too sharply drawn. Distinctions between populations always are. Yet it has never ceased to be true that North and South are different cultures, and that their histories lie behind their differences. Because the relationships between New England and the Cromwell revolution are not acknowledged or attended to, the meaning of Puritanism, British and American, has been vulnerable to distortion and trivialization. It is not a name the movement chose for itself, for one thing. In fact, Puritan translates the Greek word Cathar, that other name for Albigensians. It is striking how similarly they are caricatured as gloomy religious fanatics who hate life. Early New Englanders are sometimes said to have tried to establish a theocracy. If this were true, it would be hard to imagine how their arrangements could have been more theocratic than the papacy was at the time, or than an Anglicanism that enforced conformity of worship with penalties including loss of basic civil rights—how it could have been more theocratic than the European norm, that is. They were an unusually homogeneous group to begin with because they did emigrate on account of their religion. Later immigrants were on the losing side of a failed revolution that had become, over time, a struggle between religious factions. Cromwell wanted plain, russet-coated fellows in his army, God-fearing men, he said, because they were tough and brave and reliable. So his army became, in effect, Puritan.

In 1630, 12 years before the English Civil War began, John Winthrop famously called the colony he would help to establish at Massachusetts Bay a city on a hill whose success or failure would be known to the world. It would have the world’s attention because it would be a radical community, an experiment, created by covenant among members whose bonds were hoped to be mutual charity—that is, compassion and love. There were already a few places in Europe where traditional rulers had been ousted, notably thriving little republics in Switzerland and the Low Countries. Persecution and exile had made Protestantism strongly aware of itself as an international movement. It made extensive use of the technology of printing, strongly encouraged literacy, and had important intellectual centers such as Wittenberg and Cambridge.

Like Cathars and Cromwell, the American Puritans are assumed to have been particularly severe, but in an age when judicial mutilation was commonplace in England and Europe, and where capital crimes were innumerable and unpublished, evidence I have seen suggests that the Puritans were notably restrained. A scarlet letter, however regrettable in itself, is certainly to be preferred to slashed nostrils and cropped ears. I name this famous letter, fictional as I assume it is, because Hawthorne’s novel has served as evidence of an appalling severity, when in historical context it would have been no such thing. The Crucible is about the McCarthy era, of course, but it is taught as a phenomenon that captures the essence of American Puritanism, whereas witch trials were carried on in Britain and Europe into the 18th century, long after they ended in New England. All this should be too obvious to need saying, and yet these two works of fiction lie like a glacier on the history of America’s radical and progressive history, obscuring questions such as why, by the time of the writing of the Constitution, slavery could be described as an institution peculiar to the South, with enslaved populations allowed for in the representation of southern states exclusively. Recently publicized evidence that slave labor was used in the colonial North demonstrates its economic viability in the North, and that under British law there were no limits to its use. And still in 1789 it could be called peculiar to the South.

This country is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history. How are we to account for liberating thoughts and movements, things that have gone well? What has been the thinking behind our great institutions? I have found little help in answering these questions. I hope for a day when I can immure myself in some fine archive and explore them in depth. Early American historiography is for the most part a toxic compound of cynicism and cliché, so false that it falsifies by implication the history of the Western world. To create a history answerable to the truth would be a gift of clarity, sanity, and purpose. If I seem to have wandered from my subject, this is true because the subject is generally thought of in terms that are far too narrow. The great freedom of conscience would be its liberation from our own cynicism, conventionalism, and narrowness of vision.

This essay is adapted from Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming collection, What Are We Doing Here? which will be published in February.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Marilynne Robinson is the author of Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.


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