September 22, 2022


A Forgotten Champion of Religious Liberty: Dirck Coornhert's 1582 Synod on the Freedom of Conscience speaks to our polarized age. (Joseph Loconte, 9/16/22, Law & Liberty)

The unifying thread to the Synod is the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. Gamaliel reminds the Reformed delegates, for example, that their Catholic adversaries are members of the same human family. They "are fellow human beings who, just like us, prefer to be kindly tolerated rather than violently forced." No follower of Jesus, Gamaliel insists, can escape the ethical core of his teaching: "This law applies to both, indeed to all parties. We are all subjected to this law and I wish fervently that we would all act in accordance with it."

The Union of Utrecht (1579) had enshrined freedom of conscience as the basis of the Dutch Republic; no one was to be punished because of his religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the Reformed Church held an official religious monopoly and prohibited or penalized non-conforming faiths. Coornhert himself had been muzzled by the authorities for criticizing Reformed ministers in print, and he devotes an entire session in the Synod to defending freedom of the press and freedom from censorship. As biographer Gerrit Voogt summarizes it, for Coornhert "free debate and disputation were the lifeblood of a healthy republic."

Although Coornhert emphasized the inner life of faith over traditional Christian doctrine, he was never flippant about religious belief or the desire to honor the teachings of the Bible in public life. The antidote to false or controversial teaching, he believed, was not state-sanctioned crackdowns. Rather, the remedy was "to kill the heresy by means of the truth"--that is, to discuss and debate the meaning of the Scriptures. If the goal was to lead people into a deeper commitment to Christ, he reasoned, "what weapons could then be more useful or necessary to you than the power of God?"

The Synod doesn't explain how a multi-confessional state might function. But it articulates political principles that would supply the building blocks for a more liberal society. In a striking passage, Coornhert quotes a Reformed author who wrote that because men and women are spiritual beings by nature, no authority could "drive religion from the heart," the realm over which God retains exclusive authority:

The prosperity of the kingdom requires solid and sincere concord among all inhabitants. Now we can only have solid concord when all inhabitants enjoy common and equal rights, and this especially in religion. That is why the king should embrace all his subjects with a common and equal love, and this especially in the greatest and weightiest matter of all, religion. It is rooted so deep in people's hearts that one could not find a better or more lasting seal of concord anywhere.

We must not miss the radical quality of the Synod's argument. The unquestioned assumption in Coornhert's day, held by Protestants as well as Catholics, was that the prince should use his political authority to uphold the teachings of the favored, established religion. This meant enforcing doctrinal conformity and punishing dissenters--with civil penalties, prison, banishment, or execution. It was an article of faith that the alliance of church and state toward this end was the only hope of establishing political unity and social peace.

Yet Coornhert reproves Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics alike for forbidding each other's teachings whenever they gain political power and "have the magistrate on their side." He then flips the argument for stability on its head. If the prince seeks political security, he must not play favorites in matters of religion: "But wise politicians call inequality among the inhabitants or citizens of a country a pestilence to the commonwealth, as by the same token equality is the strongest bond of concord and stability."

In a way that almost no one in the West had ever attempted, Coornhert made a biblical argument that the flourishing of the state depended upon the principle of equal justice: Every person, regardless of religious belief, must enjoy equal rights under the law.

Posted by at September 22, 2022 8:51 AM