Two Kingdoms, Faith, and Freedom for All

religious_freedom-1For religious believers (as the vast majority of Utahns are), this world is made up of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God (or Gods), and the kingdom of men.

These kingdoms are very different. They have different languages. They have different customs. They have different laws. They have different leaders.

Believers owe allegiance to both kingdoms: the spiritual and the temporal. As Isaac Backus, a Baptist leader and influential advocate of religious freedom during the Founding generation, explained, the kingdoms “are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical.”

Ultimately, however, the believer owes first allegiance and duty to the spiritual kingdom — as he or she understands it. The First Amendment — and, by extension, the Utah constitution — is predicated on this idea of dual and competing authorities. As James Madison declared in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment (which largely recognized as the most influential document expounding the Framers’ understanding of religious freedom):

It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.

So, religious freedom is not just some nice thing stemming from an amorphous concept of personal liberty or autonomy. Instead, religious freedom flows both directly from the sovereignty of God and directly from the duty of humans to obey their God — according to their understanding. Indeed, as John Leland explained: “It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God.”

In other words, believers cannot defy their religious conscience without committing sin against their God.

Thus, freedom of religious conscience is an inalienable human right. It is not the right only of Christians, or Christians and Jews. It is the inalienable right of all religionists who believe in a God that requires their duty. In this way, all believers are created equal and treated equal under the federal Constitution and the Utah constitution. In fact, Article I, Section 4 of the Utah Constitution unequivocally protects the “rights of conscience” — all religious conscience — against infringement.

And why is all this important? Well, because the Utah Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary have a (sometimes forgotten) co-equal responsibility to protect the religious consciences of all Utahns. Civil laws cannot, and should not, force Utahns to abandon their religious conscience and sin against their God (whoever that may be). Conscience is not a choice for the believer — it is a duty each believer is obligated to follow.

As Michael McConnell, former University of Utah law professor and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, has stated: “Men have no right to consent to civil government that would stand in the way of their duties to the Universal Sovereign.”

Ultimately, it is the duty of everyone in Utah government to take seriously religious liberty. It is their duty to do everything in their power to protect religious conscience and ensure it is as freely exercised as possible. And it is the duty of every believer to work together and ensure the freedom of conscience of all believers — including (read: especially) those of other faiths. Freedom of religion is the universal right of all, and all must protect it, or all will lose it.

Note I: Not all religious exercise is protected under the Constitution. To think so would be silly. Al Qaeda cannot blow up buildings because they believe it their religious duty to do so. I will explore the legitimate limits to free exercise at a later time.

Note II: Much of the material for this post comes from two articles by Michael McConnell: (1) “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him!” Freedom of Religion in the Post-modern Age, 1993 BYU Law Review, 163; (2) Why Is Religious Liberty the “First Freedom”, 21 Cardozo Law Review, 1243 (1999). All American believers owe Professor–Judge McConnell a debt of gratitude for his scholarship and faith.

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