When can the government suppress religious freedom?
There is controversy in Germany about a campaign by a fundamentalist Islamic group to distribute the Koran freely to the public. Apparently 300,000 Korans have been distributed already. Politicians and media are publicly condemning the campaign. The issue, they say, is not the distribution of religious literature; the Gideons distribute 2,000 Bibles a day. The problem is that the group distributing the Korans is a fundamentalist group known for its hateful rhetoric. The Economist states:
There is nothing wrong with distributing religious texts, said Günter Krings, a Christian Democrat member of the Bundestag, but this “aggressive action” disturbs religious peace. Salafism would replace the “sovereignty of the people” with a theocratic state, declared North Rhine-Westphalia’s interior minister, Ralf Jäger.
This is quite interesting. Five hundred years ago in the same country – during the Reformation – many political leaders and theologians justified religious persecution on just these grounds of preserving peace and order. Such argumentation was particularly effective relative to the Anabaptists, who were associated, sometimes fairly, more often not, with the Peasants Revolt of the mid 1520s. The Anabaptists were also criticized for wanting to establish a theocratic state, in that case based on the Mosaic Law. Their suppression was almost always in the name of peace and order. The welfare of the commonwealth demanded the suppression of dangerous teaching. Thousands were killed on the basis of this argument.
Of course, the government is not persecuting the Salafis in Germany today; times have indeed changed quite a bit. But this is all a reminder that the issues of the 16th Century, of church and state, religious liberty, and the relation between religion and peace and order, are still very much with us. No one now, and no one in the 16th Century, believed that government could regulate the conscience, or one’s private beliefs. That is a caricature of arguments for religious persecution, a caricature that made it easy for people like John Locke to reject such arguments. In reality, religion has always been persecuted in the name of peace and order. What is at stake is the right of people to practice their religion publicly and institutionally.
Both in Germany and in America religious liberty and its meaning is hotly debated today. Knowing our tragic history on this point will help us to remember why this matters so much.