According to John Witte Jr., Althusius did consider the question of religious liberty, whether a private person has the right to “alterm amend, or even abandon” the duties prescribed under the first table (the first four commandments) of the Decalogue. Do civil officials have the authority to “propound, prescribe, or at least prefer one formulation of religious duties over another?” (The Reformation of Rights, 171). This was not a purely theoretical question. The Spanish crown was vigorously seeking to subdue his Dutch subjects and to impose upon them all strict adherence to the dogma and decrees of the Council of Trent. If God has established the magistrate (and about that there was no debate) and if Christian citizens must submit to the magistrate, even an evil one such as Philip II (again, about which there was no debate), then how could Althusius avoid the apparently inescapable conclusion that Spain had the authority to impose Romanism on a reluctant Dutch population?—and it was not only Protestants who were reluctant, some Dutch Romanists resented Spain as well.
Althusius resolved these questions by defending the absolute liberty of conscience (libertas conscientiae) but insisting on only a qualified right of religious exercise (ius relgionis exercitium (ibid, 171). See Johannes Althusius, Dicaeologicae libri tres, totum et universum jus, quo utimur, methodice complectentes [Frankfurt, 1618] 1.25.8; idem, Politica, 28.14, 37–73).
He saw the “the absolute liberty of conscience as the natural corollary to the absolute sovereignty of God….” (ibid, 171). Only God is Lord of the conscience. No magistrate can usurp that authority. He drew that inference from the prologue of the Decalogue. Only God can change the heart. No human may coerce another to act against his conscience. As Witte has it, “faith must be persuaded, not commanded.” This was no assertion of Modernist, Enlightenment autonomy. “Fides suadenda non imponenda” (The faith is for persuading not for imposing)) was the slogan of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153).
The magistrate has a duty to preserve this natural, divinely given liberty (relative to the state), this “libertas animi.” In so doing the magistrate is not threatening Christianity but rather “testifying to its “cogency” (ibid).
Freedom of conscience was not, however, the same as free exercise. That, for Althusius, would lead to the erosion of the integrity of society. Once more, Althusius was not an 18th-century, Enlightened advocate of the free exercise. Nevertheless, he was aware of the religious pluralism of the Netherlands. Some provinces had a strong Romanist presence and others a strong Arminian contingency.
Witte observes, “Althusius was all for the state establishment of Calvinism…. This gave Calvinist churches special political protection and patronage and gave Calvinist ministers special privileges and prerogatives in the community” (ibid, 173). This was his application of the first table. Jews, Romanists, and others, however, were to be tolerated. Jews could not build synagogues. They had to remain segregated from the Christian community and had to wear badges. This was only better by degrees from pogroms, banishment, and worse. Roman Catholics, Witte notes, fared a little better. They were to be tolerated but could not have their own buildings or Roman worship. Of course, in the case that Philip had been bent on re-imposing Roman worship by force it is easier to see how the Reformed might be less tolerant of the re-introduction of Romanism where it had been eliminated. Only those heretics who are “open and notorious” should face civil punishment (ibid, 174). As “churlish” (Witte’s word) as Althusius’ theory might seem today it was, in its own time, fairly “generous” (ibid).
There was in Althusius’ relatively liberal (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) approach to religious liberty and the application of the first table a certain tension. The potential for free exercise seems to have been implicit in Althusius’ theory but he still saw the application of the first table through the eyes of Constantine, as it were. After 1648, after the Peace of Westphalia, and through the course of the 18th century the principle of civil enforcement weakened and was replaced, at least in the American colonies, with the free exercise clause.
Next time we’ll review Witte’s summary of Althusius’ theory of associations and then we’ll dive into Althusius’ Politca for ourselves.