A Presbyterian understanding of the 1st and 14th amendments: freedom of religion and equal protection under the law

How the Reformation helped shape the U.S. Constitution

By Charles Wiley | Presbyterians Today
Photo of smiling muslim woman in front of U.S. flag.

During the last decade, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomed more than 7.4 million naturalized citizens into the fabric of our nation. In fiscal year 2016, 752,800 people were naturalized.

Many of us have heard that the United States’ form of government was influenced by the practices and beliefs of Presbyterians who crossed the ocean to find religious freedom. Even today, our local municipal meetings and sessions of Congress mirror what takes place in church meeting rooms around the country as elected ruling elders seek to lead each congregation. While we may understand how the church influenced the form of government, we may not always know how traditional Reformed theology has influenced the beliefs that are the bedrock of the Constitution.

Recently, two amendments to the U.S. Constitution have become particularly important in the public discussion as we consider the question of immigrants and refugees: the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment. The First Amendment states that no official religion should be established, and the 14th Amendment states that all citizens should have equal protection under the law.

How do Presbyterians understand these two amendments in light of our theology and history? How has the Reformation influenced how with think of immigration and refugees today?

Free exercise of religion

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

These brief words say a lot. The first two clauses prohibit the government from establishing a religion or denying the free exercise of religion.

The roots of Presbyterian thinking about freedom of religion grow out of our affirmation of the role of conscience. These roots of our Presbyterian/Reformed tradition are in the work of John Calvin. During the 16th-century Reformation Calvin was responsible for huge reforms in both church and society in Geneva, the city where he lived. Reformed people have been clear from the time of Calvin that human beings have no authority over the conscience of the individual. Why is the conscience of the individual so important?

Calvin was clear: Only God can judge the conscience.

This affirmation is based in the limited judgment of human beings and the omniscience of God. We can never know what God knows. Human beings can judge a person’s words, professed beliefs or outward behavior. In early Reformed communities one could face civil penalties for teaching heretical beliefs about the Trinity, for example. The penalty was harsh because of the conviction that teaching beliefs contrary to Scripture caused injury to church and society.

The Reformers’ emphasis on freedom of conscience was an affirmation that the believer was called to believe what Scripture taught, whether or not the church or political structures realized it. It has never been an affirmation that any particular person should be free to believe anything. The Reformers said that human institutions should not coerce believers to deny what they believe Scripture teaches.

We can see this clearly in the most famous statement of conscience in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tradition, from the first chapter of the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity in the Book of Order. The first historic principle of church order affirms “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (F-3.0101). Freedom of conscience for Presbyterians has always been a freedom to be obedient to God through the witness of Scripture — not an affirmation that anything goes.

At the same time, Calvin emphasized a democracy within the church that we still practice today. Church members elected leaders. There was parity between elders and ministers, a practice that Reformed churches had defended fiercely over the centuries. And Calvin cultivated a position on church and state that provided a distinction between the church and the state, each being separate from the other, yet accountable to God. In all cases, Calvin placed Christians’ responsibility to God above their responsibility to the state.

Over time Presbyterians moved to something like our First Amendment. The seeds were sown in the early days, but would come into a more recognizable form when Reformed people were religious minorities or found themselves living side by side with people who believed differently. In places where they were a minority, Presbyterians argued for the free exercise of their own Reformed religious beliefs because they did not want to be forced to be part of another church tradition. This desire to practice Presbyterianism resulted in church leaders’ standing up for the rights of others to exercise their religious freedom.

In the late 18th century, the free exercise of religion was often thought of as the free exercise of different strains of Christianity. But as religious pluralism has grown, so has the idea that freedom of religious expression should not be limited to Christians. As we well know, affirming that someone should be free to express something is not the same as adopting their beliefs.

Equal protection under the law

The nub of the 14th Amendment is that all people deserve the same protections. In the Constitution, this is specifically aimed at citizens. In our tradition, we have interpreted that more broadly as a Christian practice. This practice of equal protection is especially important in the way we think of refugees.

One of the distinctive features of the Geneva Reformation was the regularized practice of the welcome of refugees. No doubt, Calvin’s own experience as a French refugee was a great influence.

Due to Calvin’s insistence, a particular gate of the city was designated for the welcome of refugees. Refugees were welcomed, given food and other necessities, directed to opportunities for work, and then were resettled. That is, provisions for jobs and housing were made for them so that they could be productive participants in Geneva. (Citizenship was not easily attained, as it involved land ownership.)

Some might be surprised that Calvin, usually portrayed as a sober and perhaps harsh person, was so insistent that Geneva should welcome refugees. 

The most important reason was that Calvin believed that Scripture taught that refugees were to be welcomed. Exodus 22:21 is clear: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or as the Common English Bible translates it: “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.” 

Calvin’s desire to see Geneva as an example of a city shaped by God’s law meant that this type of scriptural teaching needed to be placed above all else.

Out of his own experience as a refugee, Calvin came to believe that refugees were spiritual teachers. In his book John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis quotes a letter from Calvin to English refugees in Zurich: “Yet for the children of God who know that they are the heirs of this world, it is not so difficult to be banished. It is in fact even good for them, so that through such an experience they can train themselves in being strangers on this earth.” That is, in refugees Calvin saw lessons that he thought all believers should learn. The refugee, not the settled citizen, was the norm in both the Bible and Geneva.

The challenge as we compare our history to our lives today is that citizenship was not part of the Genevan pattern of welcoming refugees. Even Calvin never attained citizenship. The notion of citizenship that would eventually appear in Western democracies was not practiced in the early Reformed communities. However, the practices of Geneva and other early Reformed communities suggest that refugees, as a group of people, were to be welcomed rather than snubbed. It was this basic orientation of the community toward welcoming the stranger that helped define the Geneva community. It is no accident that the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations were founded in Geneva over the years.

  As Presbyterians think about immigration in the United States, individual Christians and churches are called on to stand for their convictions, putting God above country and remembering that God alone is Lord of the conscience. There may not be a clearly Christian answer to the political question of how many immigrants or refugees the United States should accept each year. Biblically, we are called to welcome whatever immigrants or refugees end up in the United States, however they got here.

What now?

The convictions behind the practices can be described as elaborations on a basic teaching of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). This teaching endures whether Christians shape the civil practices or not.

John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian who was a founding father of the United States, linked the exercise of civil rights with those of religious liberty: “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

Dr. Charles Wiley III is associate director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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