CHAPTER FIVE – NO SECULAR STATE
It teaches that in a Christian nation, that is, in a nation not without God, government as a servant of God is duty-bound to glorify his name and accordingly ought to (a) remove from administration and legislation anything that impedes the free influence of the gospel on the nation; (b) abstain from all direct meddling with the spiritual formation of the nation, being absolutely incompetent thereto; (c) treat all denominations or religious communities, and moreover all citizens, regardless of their views about things eternal, on a footing of equality; and (d) acknowledge in people’s conscience, provided it does not lack the presumption of respectability, a limit to its power.
I. THREE SYSTEMS
§ 49 IGNORING RELIGION
We have seen what government is: a servant of God. Now we come to the question: What should government do and not do to be found faithful in the service of God?
Following the tenor of our Program, we answer: Government has both direct and indirect duties toward God. The direct duties are either of a negative or a positive nature. Negatively, government is bound to allow unrestricted freedom for (1) the gospel’s influence; (2) people’s spiritual formation; (3) the manner in which people choose to worship; and (4) people’s conscience. Positively, government is duty-bound to (1) maintain law and order; (2) honor the oath; and (3) dedicate one day a week to God.
We are well aware that these brief indications throw into sharp relief the difference between the kind of state the liberals want to establish and the kind we antirevolutionaries aspire to.
This is best seen if you take the trouble to think for a moment about what the liberals want. Their state is a state without God; it is a secular state.1
This does not mean that each and every liberal wants to be irreverent and disrespectful toward God. It only means that in their opinion religion belongs to the realm of the inner life and that the state as a political power must avoid as much as possible all contact with this inner life. They feel that the situation will not be ideal until the point is reached where in government circles no mention is ever made of God, religion, or church. Whatever traces might remain of that sort would gradually need to be eliminated. Kingship by the grace of God would have to go. So would prayer for God’s guidance in the Speech from the Throne. So would a prayer for God’s blessing when tabling legislative bills. Sunday observance would have to go. Every connection with the church would have to go. So would the oath. And so on.
This is true of our liberals as well as our conservatives. Not if you look at what they say, but at what their principles prescribe. Those principles leave no room for serving God. At most, as a result of inconsistency or for the sake of party interest or the theory of Hobbes, they allow for God Almighty to serve as “the invisible police that casts fear into the multitude.”2
The basic error of this political system is the claim that one cannot really know if there is a God, hence that nothing objective can be established in regard to religion, and that this whole feature of the inner life of human beings belongs to the subjective, personal, at most domestic and ecclesiastical domain.
Modern subjectivism—the false theory that religious sentiment is a separate capacity which, like musical talent, is stronger in some than in others—and in connection with that theory the false notion that we are able to ascertain what the human person thinks of God but not whether he exists or who he is—this way of thinking could not but lead with logical necessity to this God-less political system. It is a system that no longer has any room for prayer in the council chambers nor for national days of prayer. It is a system which prescribes that everything that is state must, qua state, ignore the living God.
§ 50 A STATE CHURCH
In opposition to such a system, the antirevolutionary party asserts that religion is not solely subjective but in fact is first of all objective. It contends that the knowledge that there is a God and that we have to do with that living God is firmly established and must be acknowledged, independently of our feelings. It holds that the state, too, as “the moral organization of the people as a whole,” is obliged to reckon with this foundation and fountainhead of all moral life.
The party bases this claim not on revelation but on natural theology—on the knowledge of God that can be gathered from what is seen of God in creation, particularly in the human person, and not least in the national organism as well.
In this, it consciously follows the tradition of our Reformed theologians, who held fast to this natural theology precisely for the sake of that which falls outside the kingdom of heaven. At the same time, to add one more note, the party was completely vindicated in this view by Max Müller’s recent lecture series on religion.3
This natural knowledge of God, not the knowledge from revelation, has compelling force for every person. Certainty about the first kind of knowledge does not require what the second requires, namely, supernatural illumination.
For this reason the non-confessional government has the absolute and direct legal competence as well as the obligation to take as its official rule of conduct the first (natural) knowledge of God, but not the second (revealed) kind.
This last would only be possible if there were an extraordinary, supernatural organ that could decide with absolute certainty what the revealed knowledge of God demanded in a given case. Such an organ, however, is lacking. And had to be lacking, otherwise either the state would become spiritual or religion would become profane.
Accordingly, any attempt to call such an organ into existence regardless, as was done by Rome, has foundered miserably and corrupted state and church alike. Things of a different nature just cannot be mixed.
The state is not the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God cannot be pressed into the confines of political life. We resolutely reject every attempt at reviving a “Christian state” in this sense, just as we resolutely turn against men like Rothe whose theory lacks all boundary lines and has the church flow into the state and then the state into the kingdom of God.4 Such unsound confusion of ideas must not be tolerated. It obscures clear thinking and causes the worn-out minds to sink back into the mysteries of the “unconscious” life and unsteady “feelings.” And that must not be. We have to use our understanding, our thinking, our reason in what we do, and the laws for our thinking do not allow for such a chaotic muddle.
§ 51 STATE AND CHURCH INTERRELATE, EACH ROOTED IN ITS OWN PRINCIPLE
The state is intended for the present dispensation and has at most preparatory significance for the eternal household of humankind. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, derives its purpose and character from the coming dispensation and at most uses earthly things for the things eternal.
This gives rise to two different sets of ideas that increasingly follow their separate ways and therefore ought not to be confused in our minds.
Government is directly rooted in the natural life and as such has no other than a natural knowledge of God. The kingdom of God is a supernatural realm where supernatural knowledge of God shines undimmed.
Thanks to its natural knowledge of God, government knows (1) that there is a God; (2) that this living God governs the fate of everything created, hence also of the state; (3) that this all-governing providence desires justice and is therefore an avenger of injustice; and (4) that sin is operative among human beings, from which higher intervention alone can save.
Now it is on the basis of this purely natural knowledge of God that the state comes to honor God in its public actions; to invoke God’s holy name in state documents; to respect the oath; to dedicate a day of rest to him; to proclaim national days of prayer during disasters; to practice justice even with the sword; and to allow free course to the gospel.
Three systems therefore:
(1) There is the God-less state of the liberals, who reject both the natural and the revealed knowledge of God and whose motto is “leave God out of it.” (2) There is the theocratic state of Roman Catholics and inconsistent Protestants, who base the state qua state directly on both the natural and the revealed knowledge of God and consequently make the state function as the active promoter of the kingdom of God, as for example in the Middle Ages and still partly in Prussia.
And finally (3) there is the political and yet God-honoring state of the Reformed or Puritan nations, who base the state directly on the natural knowledge of God and accordingly have government proceed actively as a servant of God in the sphere of the natural knowledge of God but passively in the sphere of the revealed knowledge of God. An example here is the United States of America, where on the one hand government prays, proclaims days of prayer, and honors the seventh day, while on the other hand it conducts itself in a more neutral fashion vis-à-vis the churches than any country in Europe.5
II. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE REFORMED POLITICAL PRINCIPLE
§ 52 INDIFFERENTISM
The whole difference between us and the liberals about religion in the public domain is that they regard religion in all its life-expressions with suspicion as a dangerous intruder, whereas we consider religion as a member of the family whose presence and influence we value highly.
Both of us judge that government has to abstain as much as possible from interfering in matters pertaining to “the salvation of souls.” But with the liberals this judgment is based on the view that politics is superior to religion, and with us on the conviction that religion is superior to politics.
Our opponents exhort to noninterference because it would corrupt government. We recommend noninterference because meddling with this most holy domain would corrupt religion.
Liberals underestimate if not disdain the Christian faith, whereas we love and respect it. They advise abstention in order to keep religion within the narrowest confines possible. We advise abstention in order to have faith’s sanctifying influence work as purely, as powerfully, as widely as possible.
The result is that liberals adjust their form of government to suit atheists. Of course, we know better than to assume that most liberals are atheists. Many appreciate forms of piety. But as much as this may be true for their private life, their ideal in politics is the atheist ideal.
Their political ideal would be met beautifully by a nation consisting exclusively of atheists. Gone would be all those thorny religious issues. Gone all those problems with conscientious objectors and all that opposition to a strictly neutral government school for all children. Gone all that trouble with religious processions and popular petitions. No more disruptions of the steady pulse of the pure magnetic-liberal current.
§ 53 THE REFORMED PRINCIPLE
We, by contrast, wish to structure our state in such a way that political life and national life match. And since we are not a nation of atheists but a Christian nation, we want to give the state a structure that matches that situation in practice—a structure in which the Christian feels at home and which continually reminds the atheist of the undeniable fact that not the Christian, but he, is the exception and that he is accommodated, to be sure, but only by way of exception.
In taking this stance we proceed from the obvious fact that the form of government is not designed for the blind, the deaf, or the cripple, but for the ordinary citizen who can see, hear, and walk. Just as government seeks to assure the best possible existence for the atheist, so it will for the blind, the deaf, and the cripple, yet an existence that will always be the exception, never the rule.
If it were the case that religion benefited from state propaganda (which we deny), we would even go so far as to spite the atheist by allowing the state to engage in religious propaganda. If history taught that state intervention to spread the faith and keep it pure is effective, then the honor of God and the salvation of sinners would so trump everything for us that we would not hesitate for a moment to call in the power of the state. So greatly do the honor of God and the glory of his name surpass constitutional form and parliamentary interest that hesitation would be a sin if one knew that state compulsion could add to that honor.
Similarly, the redemption of souls, the salvation of sinners, the introduction of sensuous humans to the higher powers of heaven is such an eminently holy cause that we would straightway surrender every political interest to it if state interference had proved effective in helping reach this goal.
No one should suspect us, therefore, of timidly hiding our agenda or half-heartedly taking up with theories that are foreign to us. No, we will never break up the wheel of life and we resolutely oppose every revolution that wants to overturn that wheel.
That which is on top should stay on top. For us, the name of God Almighty stands high above all creatures, including the creature called the state. They are all mere instruments that must together serve his honor and praise.
§ 54 COMPULSION PROVED UNPROFITABLE
Thus, if state compulsion were helpful, we would not shrink for one moment from state intervention (provided personal and domestic life remained untouched).
That we do recoil from it—in fact protest against it with all our might and oppose with all the influence at our disposal those who still pin their hopes on state meddling in this matter—it is solely and simply because of the overwhelming evidence that state meddling with the salvation of sinners always degrades the honor of God instead of exalting it and chokes the life of piety instead of causing it to flourish.
It was tried for centuries—among all peoples, in every region, in all sorts of ways, under all kinds of circumstances. It was tried with cunning and ulterior motives, yet mostly with sincerity and earnestness. Even the victims (among others Servetus) acknowledged the fairness of the policy, although they challenged the correctness of its application.6
And the unquestionable result of all these attempts was grievous. God’s name was robbed of its splendor. The saving of souls was obstructed and disrupted. The religious and moral life of the nations did not advance but regressed. The gospel, instead of gaining in influence, saw its impact decrease to its lowest level.
If there is one lesson from history that we cannot question, it is this one. If there is one thing that we know for certain, it is the knowledge, bought too dearly at the price of much precious and sacred blood, that compulsion clashes with the very nature of all higher life, and hence clashes most vehemently with the character of the Christian faith.
§ 55 REFORMED THEORY AND PRACTICE
It is for this reason that we saw ourselves obliged by God to develop our position on this crucial point more consistently7 and to deviate from the line of conduct followed by our political forefathers. In practice they rarely followed it otherwise than with moderation, but in theory they invariably recommended it as good and sound.
Their system, as found in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, as soon as one wants to apply it in countries of mixed populations, degenerates again into the system that Rome conceived, introduced, and maintains to this day.8 On the basis of this theory, Maresius, as late as the seventeenth century, reminded government of its duty to execute heretics, albeit with various restrictions.9
There is therefore no need to debate this further. The student of history is also familiar with this story—we do not say our shame, but still our short-sightedness and blindness.
In actual practice, all Reformed nations, churches, governments, and canonists, Voetius at the head, protested and agitated against this system, even though they adhered to it in theory.10
To act according to the demand of their system, after all, had been from the beginning a rare exception. Even the government edicts against Rome usually were nothing but paper scarecrows. And if asked what emerges from the religious history of the Reformed nations in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, England, and America, it is that exceptions to the theory multiplied steadily, and freedom of conscience and freedom of religion were increasingly respected in all kinds of ways.
It had to come to this because the Reformed people had the will to push through their protest against human authority in religious matters. It cannot be emphasized enough that the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, thanks especially to the energy of the Independents, promoted freedom of conscience as the maturing fruit from the Reformed tree.
Without disguising the fact or sounding a retreat on this point, therefore, we break with the imperfect political theory of our fathers and condemn what they perpetrated in Geneva, England, and partly also in our country. They acted on the strength of a faulty theory, contrary to their own principle. As for us, we accept, in all sincerity and with utter conviction, that other principle: the state shall allow, no less but also no more, freedom for the development of the Christian religion.
III. FREE COURSE FOR THE WORD OF GOD
§ 56 FREEDOM FOR THE GOSPEL
Government, as we saw, stands outside the domain of revealed religion. It possesses natural knowledge of God, not the supernatural kind, at least not directly. This means that with respect to supernatural revelation it has only duties in a negative sense and is bound to observe positive duties only on the strength of the natural knowledge of God.
Government is aware, thanks to this natural knowledge of God, that this knowledge does not suffice but presupposes, rather, a revelation that is supernatural. It is aware that the subjects it governs are human beings, beings of a higher order, created for more than one life, who are in need of still another guide, another aid, another light than government can provide.
Traditionally, the government of a Christian people is aware as well that this higher light is not found with Confucius or Buddha, nor with Darwin, but only with Jesus Christ or, if you will, with the eternal gospel. But government has no decisive answer to the question in what way this gospel is to be brought to the people and what obligations the gospel imposes on them. It is powerless to find an answer because the gospel lies outside its domain and beyond its reach. Nor can it adopt the answer of others because those answers vary and government lacks the spiritual competence to choose from among them.
On this ground, therefore, we confess that government may only conduct itself negatively in regard to the gospel.
It must not favor it, but even less must it discriminate against it. Its attitude must be that of respectful treatment and benevolence, but with a benevolence that refuses, precisely out of pious respect, to do anything it cannot do.
Accordingly, the Program speaks, quite correctly in our opinion, of four different obligations.
(1) The gospel shall have free course
Government must not obstruct the proclamation of the gospel. There are to be no restrictions or hindrances to the preaching of the Word. Every agent of the good news must be able to see in the behavior of the government and its officials that it wants to be a friend of the gospel and never an enemy—that far from obstructing God’s Word, it paves the way for that Word.
Governments can transgress this rule both directly and indirectly.
Ours did so directly in 1816 by becoming the guardian of a mighty corporation in the heart of the nation, the Dutch Reformed Church, striking a once vibrant body with absolute impotence and causing it to suffocate in a bureaucratic straitjacket.
Our government has also done this in a direct and shocking way by preferably appointing assailants of the gospel in almost every department of our universities and making the founding of free evangelical universities as impossible as it could make it. This has impeded the course of the gospel among senior civil servants as well as the educated classes.
Likewise, it has done so in an indirect way through its cool and surly behavior, in fact—why not say it?—through the ungracious conduct of its civil servants, creating the impression everywhere that it had rather not give free course to the gospel.
This cannot be tolerated. This must change. We ask no favors, but neither obstruction. Government shall give free course to the Word of God.
§ 57 NO COUNTER-GOSPEL
(2) Government shall not introduce and protect a counter-gospel
The gospel can be combated in two ways: by attacking the Christian religion openly, or by balancing it with a Religion of Humanity or some other belief system.
When the state does the latter it is no less an enemy of the gospel of Christ. It may take on the air of being neutral, but in fact it undermines the power of Jesus’ gospel. It achieves the same goal as under open attack, but now in a covert, noncommittal, hypocritical manner.
That we have arrived at this situation in our country hardly needs mention. It is as clear as day to everyone that the circles of the educated and erudite in our larger cities have attempted with growing determination to supplant historic Christianity with a kind of philosophical morality that closely resembles the ideas prevalent among the cultured circles of Rome and Athens in the days when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
In accordance with our system the government was obliged to give free rein to this conspiracy against historic Christianity, but at the same time it should have viewed it with regret and never have favored it. That would have been the only appropriate stance.
Instead, our government has from the beginning taken the side of these enemies of historic Christianity, smuggled virtually every post of any influence into their hands, incorporated more and more of their ideas in legislation, and last but not least, placed millions from municipal and national treasuries at their disposal in order to push through this systematic undermining of Christianity by means of the public school.
§ 58 EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL
(3) There shall be equal rights for all in religious affairs
No matter how much the government may sympathize with the gospel, it should never allow itself to be tempted to banish or bind preachers who wish to combat the gospel.
If a Jew wishes to take exception to the Messiah of the Christians, or a Muslim to Holy Scripture, or a Darwinist to the idea of creation—or for that matter, if a positivist wants to protest against the root which for all things holy lies in faith—all should be free to do so.
Free, because once government starts to weed, it can easily mistake wheat for tares. Free also, because once these opponents of Christianity are beaten back, they can boast that they were not beaten fairly but only yielded to force. Free above all, however, because Christianity itself needs this constant dueling with champions from the other camps and must prove its moral superiority by triumphing in a strictly spiritual battle.
Again, associations of like-minded people, too, should be left free. Even the question whether such an association takes the name of church, communion, or society should be immaterial to government. Even if a church of atheists should want to establish itself, it would have to be tolerated. No special protection, but neither prevention or repression. What shoots up and is able to grow should be allowed to grow. Leave it to Christian believers, if need be to Christian martyrs, to have the honor of demonstrating the intrinsic emptiness of non-Christian spiritual life.
We must not shrink from allowing freedom for believer and unbeliever alike, or else the strength on which we want to lean will appear to be another than the strength of faith.
And if all this holds for opponents of the gospel, it should hold all the more for the different, diverging, sometimes even bizarre forms under which the proclamation of the gospel appears.
A Baptist should not be favored by government over an Irvingian, and an Irvingian not over an Arminian. Government never chooses sides between church and church, no matter under what motto or creed it operates.
Roman Catholics should not be granted anything that is withheld from the Reformed. Nor should they be subjected to pressure, burdens, or curtailment of rights that we would not tolerate for ourselves. Even if Rome should provoke or taunt us ten times worse than it has thus far, it would still behoove us to stay calm and not deviate an inch from our principle that prescribes government nonintervention in the domain of revealed religion.11
Finally, also in regard to private life and citizenship, all citizens, regardless of their views about things eternal, ought to be treated on a footing of equality. That is to say, no one, for example, should be excluded from appointment to a certain post merely on the basis of what he believes or does not believe. And in the case of the oath, a means must be found to remove an atheist’s spiritual blindness as a handicap for him in the field of politics. In the same vein, it is not right systematically to exclude people of our persuasion from the governing boards of the universities; this system, still defended recently in the liberal press, bears the shameful mark of flaming illiberality.
(4) Conscience shall never be violated
There should be freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of worship; but above all, the root of all these freedoms: freedom of conscience. This broad subject requires a separate article.
IV. FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
§ 59 CONSCIENCE: SOVEREIGN IN ITS OWN SPHERE
The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.
The limits to state power reside in the will of God. Government has as much power as God has assigned to it. No more; no less. It sins if it leaves unused a portion of the power assigned to it, but also if it arrogates to itself any power that is not assigned to it.
There is only one power without limits, the power of God, whence it is called almighty power. Anyone who accords the state the right to exercise power as if it had no limits is guilty of deifying the state and favoring state omnipotence. That is not indulging in oratorical phraseology but simply indicating a purely logical concept.
The moment one no longer speaks of “God” but of “an institution that he called into being,” one is alluding to a distribution of power that has taken place. God called institutions of all kinds into being, and to each of them he granted a certain measure of power. In other words, he distributed the power that he had to assign. He did not give all his power to one single institution, but he endowed each of those institutions with the particular power that corresponded to its nature and calling.
It was this distribution of power that created boundaries, just as breaking up the commons gave rise to individual plots of land. Thus if the issue of power concerned things tangible and material, there would be no debate about the limits to state power. God would once for all have delineated the boundaries of each of his institutions. He could have given us a description of those boundaries, and whenever a quarrel arose we would be able to settle the issue (if we may be allowed to put it that way) by consulting this “divine registry.”
But such is not the case.
The various entities—human persons first of all—which God called into being by his creative powers and to which he apportioned power, are almost all, in whole or in part, of a moral nature. There is a distinctive life of science; a distinctive life of art; a distinctive life of the church; a distinctive life of the family; a distinctive life of town or village; a distinctive life of agriculture; a distinctive life of industry; a distinctive life of commerce; a distinctive life of works of mercy; and the list goes on.
Now then, next to and alongside all these entities and ever so many other organizations stands the institution of the state.
Not above them, but alongside them. For each of these organizations possesses sphere-sovereignty, that is to say, derives the power at its disposal, not as a grant from the state but as a direct gift from God.
Fathers have power over their children, not as a gift from the state but by the grace of God. The only right the state has at most is to codify the right that fathers have received from God and, should a father want to injure the rights that God has also given to the child, to restore the situation as God has intended it.
The state is differentiated from all these other organizations by the fact that government alone has public power, whereas all other organizations in and of themselves are of a private nature.
Later we shall discuss the nature of this difference. For now it is enough to note that only the government has been given the power, when rights are under dispute, to impose on organizations and individuals what it deems to be just—if need be by the strong arm and, if it comes to that, by the sword. At the same time—and this especially should be noted—government has been assigned the duty, as much as is feasible, to jump in whenever these organizations and individuals neglect their natural life-task.
§ 60 CONSCIENCE: THE LIMIT TO STATE SOVEREIGNTY
In practice, three examples of this kind of negligence can occur that involve these organizations (and individuals).
One of them may transgress its bounds and harm another. In that case government must push back the intruder.
Or one of them simply supplies what another left unused and undone, in which case government need only guard against chaos and confusion.
Or, finally, one or more organizations leave undone what another does not supply, and then government, if it is a matter of essentials, has to consider how it will jump in and in the meantime how it can stimulate the energy of its citizens so that this intervention need only be temporary.
From this it follows that a government has a twofold task, a normal and an abnormal one. Its normal task is to till its own field; its abnormal task is to look after neighboring fields to the extent that those neighbors let them lie fallow and to take care of them for as long as they neglect them.
Thus, in a nascent society, the state will have to do almost everything. In the measure that the energy of the citizenry awakens, government will more and more be relieved of abnormal action. And things will not be right until the citizen’s energy breaks out in all directions and creates the opportunity for the state to do nothing extra and to focus exclusively on cultivating the field it was assigned.
Now if there were a still higher judge on earth who could pronounce a verdict in any disputes between the state and the other organizations (or individuals), and if that judge at the same time had the power to enforce compliance with his verdict, then there would never be any problem about this negotiorum gestio.12
But there is no such judge on earth. In disputes of this kind, government is judge in its own cause. This opens the source for the unfair treatment and abuse of power that governments time and again are guilty of.
Time and again governments, represented by sinful people, abuse their exclusive prerogative to compel by force.
They do so in three ways: (1) by pretending that they have the competence to grant power to the other organizations; (2) in disputes between these organizations, by favoring the party that is sympathetic to them; and (3) by gradually acting as owners of fields of which they are only the temporary caretakers. For this threefold abuse there is no other cure than absolute and full respect for freedom of conscience.
The sense of justice does help. But lately it has become more evident than ever in our country that government has makeshifts at its disposal to dull even this sacred sense.
The Constitution is also helpful. It is the charter of our civil rights. But we know how the interpretation of the Constitution has served as the magic formula for nullifying the Constitution.
Public opinion also helps. But May Laws and Socialist Laws have made it abundantly clear how one energetic government leader can reverse all of a country’s public opinion in the space of three years.13
And therefore the only point of support that has ultimately proved invincible and indomitable over against the power of the state is the conscience.
§ 61 CONSCIENCE CANNOT BE COERCED
Conscience is the most intimate expression of the life of a human being. Conscience knows that it has received its power directly from God. Conscience revolts against every unjust verdict that ends a dispute. Conscience will not cease to badger government whenever it acts as the owner of a field of which it is only the temporary caretaker.
These excellent traits derive from the fact that conscience is the immediate contact in a person’s soul of God’s holy presence, from moment to moment. Withdrawn into the citadel of his conscience, a person knows that God’s omnipotence stands guard for him at the gate. In his conscience he is therefore unassailable.
If government nevertheless dares to push through its abuse of force, the end will be a martyr’s death. And in that death government is beaten and conscience triumphs.
Conscience is therefore the shield of the human person, the root of all civil liberties, the source of a nation’s happiness.
To be sure, we are very much aware that in our sinful conditions two wrongs can occur in connection with conscience: (1) that one misuses his conscience as a hypocritical pretext; and (2) that one’s conscience errs in what it wills. Thus we understand very well that the authorities would love to use this circumstance to overrun this last bulwark of resistance by telling us that it is beneath a government’s dignity to yield to consciences that are so unreliable.
Nevertheless, although we admit the reality of this problem, we would rather needlessly step aside ten times to a false conscience than even once repress a good conscience.
Ten times better is a state in which a few eccentrics can make themselves a laughingstock for a time by abusing freedom of conscience, than a state in which these eccentricities are prevented by violating conscience itself.
Hence our supreme maxim, sacred and incontestable, reads as follows: as soon as a subject appeals to his conscience, government shall step back out of respect for what is holy.
Then it will never coerce. It will not impose the oath, nor compulsory military service, nor compulsory school attendance, nor compulsory vaccination, nor anything of the kind.
When it comes to fighting for the homeland to defend its freedom, the country’s independence will be ten times safer with a robust sense of conscience in the nation than with the addition of a hundred conscientious pacifists in uniform.14
Our Program makes only one exception, and not unjustly it would seem: an appeal to conscience is to be honored provided it does not lack the presumption of respectability. A swindler, a reckless rogue, an unscrupulous wretch should not have the right to appeal to that forum. Granted, this is a limitation, but not an unfair one. If you want to preserve your right of conscience, it is not too much to ask that you be willing to renounce whatever is shameful.
Abraham Kuyper, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto