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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Murder as a conscientious Thug


Another

principle, not connected by any direct logic with democracy and not set forth in the Declaration of Independence, was closely associated with the democratic thesis by the great French thinkers by whom that thesis was revived, and had a strong hold upon the mind of Jefferson--the principle of religious equality, or, as it might be more exactly defined, of the Secular State.

So many loose and absurd interpretations of this principle have been and are daily being propounded, that it may be well to state succinctly what it does and does not mean.

It does not mean that anyone may commit any anti-social act that appeals to him, and claim immunity from the law on the ground that he is impelled to that act by his religion; can rob as a conscientious communist, murder as a conscientious Thug, or refuse military service as a conscientious objector. None understood better than Jefferson--it was the first principle of his whole political system--that there must be _some_ basis of agreement amongst citizens as to what is right and what is wrong, and that what the consensus of citizens regards as wrong must be punished by the law. All that the doctrine of the Secular State asserted was that such general agreement among citizens need not include, as in most modern States it obviously does not include, an agreement on the subject of religion. Religion is, so to speak, left out of the Social Contract, and consequently each individual

retains his natural liberty to entertain and promulgate what views he likes concerning it, so long as such views do not bring him into conflict with those general principles of morality, patriotism and social order upon which the citizens of the State _are_ agreed, and which form the basis of its laws.

The public mind of America was for the most part well prepared for the application of this principle. We have already noted how the first experiment in the purely secular organization of society had been made in the Catholic colony of Maryland and the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. The principle was now applied in its completeness to one State after another. The Episcopalian establishment of Jefferson's own State was the first to fall; the other States soon followed the example of Virginia.

At the same time penalties or disabilities imposed as a consequence of religious opinions were everywhere abrogated. Only in New England was there any hesitation. The Puritan States did not take kindly to the idea of tolerating Popery. In the early days of the revolution their leaders had actually made it one of the counts of their indictment against the British Government that that Government had made peace with Anti-Christ in French Canada--a fact remembered to the permanent hurt of the Confederacy when the French Canadians were afterwards invited to make common cause with the American rebels. But the tide was too strong even for Calvinists to resist; the equality of all religions before the law was recognized in every State, and became, as it remains to-day, a fundamental part of the American Constitution.


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