11 February 2015

Conscience and Its Protection

Go here to read a nice (and short!) article by Leah Achor titled A Historical Defense of State and Local Protection of Private Conscience. Achor briefly (perhaps too briefly) surveys the history of the meaning of conscience from the Christian New Testament Scriptures to the medieval Thomas Aquinas to the early-modern Westminster Confession of Faith to classical liberal John Locke to William Blackstone whose Commentaries on the Law of England were very much in the mix of political thought during the Founding era in America's history.

When it comes to the protection of conscience by law, Achor conflates the notions of conscience as a power, innately part of human nature, and conscience as the act by which a power is exercised. How else to explain her inclusion of Aquinas in the history of conscience in Western thought alongside Locke and Blackstone? How else also to explain her quote from section 2 of Chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
while omitting section 4:
And because the powers which God hath ordained,and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to Destroy, but mutually to uphold and preseve one another; they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity ...; or such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.
In short, Achor is a liberal, albeit in the classical sense. The notion of conscience whose protection she advocates is that of classical liberalism, not the broad sweep of Western Christian political and theological thought before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries..

But to be a classical liberal is not a bad thing. After all, I wrote positively of liberalism in Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition. And to draw our attention to the notion of conscience in the Founding era is extremely important in the current context of administratively-enforced political correctness. (See my most recent post about the travails of Trinity Western University for an example.)

Indeed, it is in her application of the classical liberal understanding of conscience, the one embedded in America's constitutional ordering, that Achor's work should prove most useful. Thus, with the qualifications noted above, I commend Achor's Defense to a wider audience.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Shakeshaft2/11/2015 12:38 PM

    I am very glad to see Leah's paper proliferate on this blog.