I cannot remember exactly how Jim and I came to be talking about this question. I started to take notice when Jim said: “I’m just about fed up with religious leaders appealing for greater religious freedom. They argue that people should be allowed to follow their consciences when governments are impinging on the rights of their members to practice their religion, but they don’t really believe in allowing people to follow their consciences. When they get the opportunity to exert some political influence themselves, they use it to impose their moral views so that people are deprived of the option of acting in accordance with their consciences.”
My response was that some religious leaders who appeal for greater religious freedom do seem to have a consistent view about the importance of individual conscience. Jim looked interested, so I told him that I had recently read a book on ethics by the Dalai Lama. I was pleasantly surprised that the Dalai Lama seemed to be espousing the primacy of conscience, despite coming from a tradition in which there has been a very close relationship between church and state. He argues that ethical discipline is something that we adopt voluntarily on the basis of full recognition of its benefits, rather than something that can be imposed upon us. He says that the most important factor in determining the ethical character of our acts is our mental and emotional state at the moment of action. (The book’s title is “Ancient Wisdom, Modern World”, published in 1999. The relevant discussion is on pages 153 – 157.)
Jim said: “That’s all very well, but the leaders of major religions in this country don’t yet seem to have learned how to distinguish between personal morality and public policy. They seem to think that religious freedom entitles them to get governments to force people to comply with their religion’s view of what is good.”
I replied that it did not worry me too much these days what religious leaders might try to do in Australia because they have lost much of their moral authority, even with regard to members of their own religions. In any case, voters seem to have become wary of giving much power to politicians who are known to have close links with prominent religious leaders.
Jim responded: “Yeah, but don’t you think it is about time these religious leaders learned to ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’?”
I said that I thought that Christian religious leaders knew a lot more about this than we did - and they would probably be aware that these ideas had been influential in leading to the separation of church and state and the evolution of religious freedom. I said that it might be nice to think that we could persuade religious leaders that they should refrain from creating dissention by trying to get governments to impose their moral views on others and that they should focus their political efforts on encouraging people with different beliefs to live in peace with each other. I suggested, however, that we just have to accept that these people have found some way that they think is respectable to defend religious freedom without acknowledging the inviolability of conscience.
“Bulls**t!”, Jim said. “The inviolability of the human conscience is at the heart of Christianity. Those who would never accept that the state has a right to over-ride their own consciences are acting contrary to the golden rule when they attempt to use the powers of the state to over-ride the consciences of others. Religious leaders should recognize the inviolability of conscience and help protect liberty rather than threaten it.”
When I asked Jim where these ideas came from he said that he had thought this way since childhood. He did suggest, however, that it probably wouldn’t do me any harm to read the views of Fr. Robert Sirico on the question of whether religion has to be a threat to liberty (here).