UNDER this heading, a writer in a western paper proposes to secure religious liberty to every citizen of the United States by a constitutional amendment “clothing Congress with power to protect the citizens of the various States from religious persecution under the form of State laws.” There is very much in the article in question that might be criticised, but for the present only one or two points will be noticed.
The article referred to is an attempted defense of religious liberty, else it would not occasion remark. But coming as it does from one, who is beyond doubt a friend of liberty of conscience, the article demands attention.
The first proposition calculated to startle the thoughtful advocate of religious liberty is this:—
In the exercise of such rights [rights of conscience], there must of necessity be some limitations…. The rule, therefore, seems to be that no man has the right, or should have the power, to violate in the name of religious conscience those great fundamental principles of morality which mankind intuitively understand to be so manifestly correct that they need no demonstration.
It is to be presumed that the writer of the foregoing uses “morality” in the popular sense of the duties of man to man. But even in that sense his statement is objectionable. There must not of necessity be limitations in the exercise of the rights of conscience. Not that every man, or that any man, should be permitted to do whatever his conscience tells him is right to do; but simply because that which infringes in any way the equal right of another is not a right. There is a difference between conscience and the rights of conscience. No man can have any right, either of conscience or otherwise, to infringe the rights of others. Rights never cross, never conflict; but conscientious convictions often do.
But the article in question contains something far more startling than this to which reference has been made. The same writer says in the same article: “As stated above, a man should be protected in the enjoyment of his religious convictions, so long as he is not guilty of practicing immorality or other wrong.” Now this certainly covers all the ground possible. No matter how restricted the definition given to immorality, the expression “other wrong” covers all the ground not covered by the former, and leaves a man the liberty (?) to do anything that does not offend either God or man; and that in the opinion of his fellow-men; for he is to be protected in the enjoyment of his religious convictions only so long as he is not guilty of practicing immorality—that is, if our supposition as to the sense in which the word is used be correct, wrong to man—or other wrong, which must, in this case, be sin against God. The only question that remains is, Is a certain course of action wrong? does it offend either God or man? If so it can be forbidden, according to the logic of the writer referred to. The most ardent National Reformer or bigoted papist never claimed more than this.
Civil government has nothing whatever to do with right or wrong, that is with the abstract quality of actions determined by the standard of morals; but only with rights and wrongs, that is with acts themselves in their relation to person, property, or reputation of individuals, or to the public. Right and wrong has to do with moral obligation from the standpoint of the divine law; wrongs, with human relations. Blackstone says that wrongs may be either public or private. The latter he defines a “civil injuries immediately affecting individuals;” the former as “crimes and misdemeanors which affect the community.” Murder, assault, theft, etc., are private election frauds, riot, etc., are public wrongs.
Of course the things enumerated are all immoral, and so sinful; but while the injury is done to men the sin is against God, and as such is cognizable only by the divine Judge. Primarily all sin is against God for it is his law that is violated: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law.” 1 John 3:4. This fact is recognized in the 51st Psalm. David had committed the two greatest wrongs possible against Uriah, yet he said to the Lord: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” The civil law properly deals with wrongs against men; but never with sin against God as such. But all sin is immoral; hence, to say that “a man should be protected in the enjoyment of his religious convictions, so long as he is not guilty of practicing immorality or other wrong in the name of his faith,” is only to say that the individual ought not to be molested unless those in authority adjudge him guilty, either of sin against God or crime against man. The writer of the article in question has made a mistake. His religious-liberty “bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it: and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it.”