National Reform and the Rights of Conscience

ONE of the objections to the National Reform movement which are “answered” by a leading exponent of that movement in a “Manual of Christian Civil Government,” from which we quoted last week, is that of its infringement of the rights of conscience. The author of this National Reform “Manual” assumes to answer this objection and to dispose of what he styles “this high-sounding claim,” in this way:—

“What are meant by rights of conscience? and what is an infringement of them? Has any citizen a right of conscience to object to the Thanksgiving proclamations by our President and State governors? Has he a right of conscience to object to the employment at government expense of Christian ministers to pray in Congress or State legislatures? A certain citizen doesn’t believe in these things: must they be abandoned as an infringement of his rights? The name of God in our State constitutions offends him: is this an infringement of his rights of conscience?”

Any person who would answer these questions in the affirmative, he says, is a “secularist Tartar.”

“Yes,” we reply, “all these are, in principle, an infringement of the rights of conscience; and because they embody this evil principle, they ought to be abolished.”

The principle upon which Thanksgiving proclamations by Presidents and State governors, State chaplaincies, and recognition of God in the State constitutions, rest, if the principle of church-and-state union. While in themselves not of much consequence, comparatively, they afford a basis upon which to build a complete church-and-state despotism without introducing any new principle of injustice. Once admitted and sanctioned by the people, they furnish the logic for all subsequent steps of oppression and persecution.

To meet the objection presented by the rights of conscience, however, the National Reform advocate sets up the claim that a secular form of government infringes the rights of conscience of people who want the government to be “Christian.” This claim is worth noticing; hence we quote further from the “Manual“:—

“But suppose this high-sounding claim of rights of conscience were granted—repeal our Sabbath laws; abolish the oath; banish the Bible from all our schools; hush the devout aspirations of prayer in Congress and State legislatures; discontinue all national and State calls to thanksgiving and prayer—do all this, and more than this, in deference to this plea of rights of conscience,—would the difficulty be ended? would the problem be solved? would no individual rights of conscience now be infringed upon? What about Christian citizens who believe that they have a right to a quiet Sabbath? What about citizens who believe with Washington that the oath is essential to our courts of justice? … Is there not an overwhelming majority of our citizens whose most sacred and precious rights would be wantonly and impiously trampled under foot by a government administered on the basis of the godless political creed of modern secularism?

“And whither would this cry lead us? Roman Catholics claim that our common schools are an infringement of their rights of conscience. Must we therefore destroy the most magnificent system of public instruction on the face of the earth? The war power of the national Constitution is opposed to the conscientious convictions of thousands of our best citizens. Shall we disband our small army, scuttle our iron-clads, and level our forts to the ground? … The consciences of multitudes are grievously oppressed by capital punishment. Shall we therefore forbid the execution of the murderer?”

The point to be observed in all this, to perceive its utter fallacy, is that the rights of conscience demand only individual liberty. A right of conscience is not a right to say what some one else shall do, but only what the individual who claims that right, shall do. This is a broad distinction, and one which the National Reformer purposely ignores. The so-called “right” to say what other people shall do, is just the sort of right claimed by these “reformers.” They want to be allowed the “right” to mind not only their own business, but other people’s as well. They have such a surplus of conscience that they want to be conscience not only for themselves, but for everybody else.

Thus, “what about Christian citizens who believe they have a right to a quiet Sabbath?” Does this “right to a quiet Sabbath” mean that nobody else has any right at all to the day? The right to rest is not more sacred than the right to labor. These people who want to rest on Sunday ignore the rights of the people who want to work or to engage in recreation. They can have a “quiet Sabbath” if they wish it, either at home, or in the fields, or at church. They are perfectly free to secure a quiet Sabbath in any of these ways, but they demand that other people shall not be left free. They can have a “quiet Sabbath” without disturbing other people; but that is not what they want. They want all work stopped, no matter if they are ten miles away from it. They want all plays and amusements prohibited no matter how far removed from their sight and hearing. They want to be allowed to say not only how they themselves shall regard Sunday, but how other people shall regard it. And they have the impudence to demand this as one of their “rights.” If they would learn to mind their own business, certainly one of the civil obstacles to their enjoyment of a “quiet Sabbath” would be removed.

And so of the other infringements of “rights” which he mentions; they are all infringements of the “right” to say what somebody else shall do; which of course is not a right at all. Let Roman Catholics, and other religious bodies, instruct their children in religion in their own schools. Nobody denies them the privilege. And let religion be kept out of the public schools, in order that no one be taxed to support a religion which he repudiates. Let every one be free to support his own religion to the fullest extent, but not “free” to say that some one else must support it also. Freedom to dictate what other people must do is not freedom at all, but despotism.

And let those conscientious citizens who do not believe in war, stay away from war. They can claim no right to say what other people shall do in the matter. Likewise those who do not believe in capital punishment,—let them order their own conduct in the matter as they see fit; nobody will interfere with them. And let them leave other people equally free.

The simple rule which governs the whole matter is that no one—not even the National Reformer—has a right to interfere with the rights of other people.

Share this: