By Chelsea Rankin.
Patrick Henry College
Dr. Michael Farris during Friday's Faith and Reason lecture
Throughout a rich historical overview of forces that aided and opposed religious liberty’s journey toward modernity, he posed and repeatedly reframed the question of whether the advent of religious liberty arose from a triumph of the Reformation or the Enlightenment or some other source. He was, in essence, seeking to answer the question of whether religious liberty arose from faith or reason.
“We live in an age where it is growing more and more unacceptable to disagree with someone’s vision of that which is orthodox,” Farris said. “If an American makes a film criticizing Mohammed, American ambassadors get killed, American embassies are destroyed, and American businesses are burned. And yet it is the American government that does the apologizing—a form of bowing the knee to the contention that it is illegitimate to say anything that offends Islam.”
Citing a “rising orthodoxy of the left” called “Political Correctness,” Dr. Farris, early on, identified Christian homeschoolers as being particularly under attack in today’s culture, precisely because elite academics and university professors, among others, “do not like the content of our speech.
“What should our position be in response to this new orthodoxy that seeks to use the power of law to repress our views?” Farris asked his audience. “Should we, like them, seek to establish our own political and social dominance so that we may silence those who disagree with us? Or, should we stand up for the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion – even if people use that speech to criticize us and our religion, and even if they worship gods that we abhor?”
Origins of Religious Freedom
In order to trace the origins of America’s national commitment to religious freedom, he examined the topic from the context of British and American history, observing that we must “recognize that the history of religious liberty is only one side of the coin. The history of religious repression is the other side of that very coin. Unfortunately, both sides of this coin represent viewpoints where the leading proponents were professing Christians.
"I will demonstrate today,” he continued, “that the leading advocates of religious liberty were professing Christians who were using religious arguments to advance their viewpoints. On the other hand, the same historical analysis shows that the leading practitioners of religious repression were also professing Christians who also relied on religious arguments. In fact, the religious persecutors sincerely believed that they were doing the work of God as mandated by Scripture."
Noting his intent to turn back the pages of time to see what solutions history provides, he allowed that “Our duty is to look at history honestly. If we do not model a commitment to truth when we are looking at history, how can anyone trust us to be committed to truth when we are presenting the Gospel? Christian scholars must be willing to tell the truth – even when it makes us a bit uncomfortable.”
In the course of his research for his book, From Tyndale to Madison, he said, he uncovered what would become his thesis: “Religious freedom arose when people of faith argued that their faith rationally required the protection of each individual’s freedom to use his God-given human reason to interpret Scripture for himself to reach his own religious conclusions.”
Christian Charity and Love
Putting this into ethical and effective practice, he added, requires Christians to practice forbearance, charity, and love.
“The skepticism which did aid the development of religious toleration must be understood in the context of faith,” Farris said. “Christians who fought for religious liberty never doubted the existence of universal truth or the possibility that man might know the truth, they simply admitted that the difficulties attending scriptural interpretation were significant enough that men ought to be allowed to personally read the Bible and decide for themselves on matters which had eternal implications. The argument for religious liberty was dependent upon reason, but it was reason used to discern matters of faith in the context of revealed truth, not reason divorced from faith in an attempt to infer truth from personal perception or unaided rational deduction.”
Upon Dr. Farris’ request, PHC alumnus Logan Spena (Political Theory, ’12) delivered the last few pages of the lecture from his own insights, noting that religious liberty is the work of both faith and truth-seeking Christians, adding that men ought to be able to read the Bible and make their own conclusions. He said reason serves as an assistant to faith; they offer a symbiotic relationship.
Spena’s words tied nicely into Farris’ closing words, “When utilized in the context of faith … reason was (and is) an indispensable ally in the fight for religious liberty.”