Civil and Religious Liberty

One aspect of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation is the rejection of external political and religious power, and the move towards internal political and religious determination. The free thinking which flowed in this period, sparked by Martin Luther, produced varying degrees political and religious points of view. Initially each of these viewpoints sought to rule over and against all others and conflict ensued. Thankfully with time, there arose the realisation that with the freedom of thought there should be the freedom of conscience and this should rule instead.

Enter James 11 and Louis XV1 with their absolute monarchies and totalitarian regimes. They threatened not only Protestant Europe, but Catholic Europe too, and the peace treaties which had been hard won. Hence the Grand Alliance of William, Prince of Orange, Stadt-holder of the Dutch Republic; Charles 11, King of Spain; Leopold 1, the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Alexander V111.

What took place at the Boyne was a clash between these two civilisations with the victory of William receiving ‘Services of Thanksgiving’ in the Reformed Churches of Europe including St. Patrick’s Dublin, Te Deums in the Catholic Cathedrals of Austria and Spain, and even Papal celebrations in the Vatican itself.

Another cause of celebration, is that of John Locke and his contribution to the Constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. Exiled in Holland under the reign of James 11, Locke worked hard towards the creation of a constitution, which would provide and protect civil and religious liberties for all.

His dilemma was how could Absolutist Roman Catholics be given such rights when they favoured external political and religious powers over internal ones. His reasoning led him to argue that any group or individual should enjoy civil and religious freedom as long as they do not threaten the common law and liberties of all. This was largely enshrined in the Acts of Parliament of the Glorious Revolution.

The idea of “Civil and Religious liberty for all, special privileges for none” spread throughout Europe and its colonies, and was embraced as the ideal of many. Recently, American historians and political analysts, such as Michael Barone have highlighted how this shaped the United States of America. They have shown how the American rebellion against the British monarchy and government in the 18th Century was a movement for the full extension of the rights and liberties of the Glorious Revolution across the Atlantic. Michael Barone, as an American, describes the events of 1688-1690 as “our first revolution” and lauds the role of William of Orange.

If American republicanism can take such an approach, can Irish republicanism follow suit? The old wounds between the US and UK healed over time and what now exists is described by many as a “special relationship”.  Over the past number of years we have witnessed the healing of old wounds between Ireland and the UK, and the start of a similar “special relationship”.

This relationship, as with the British-American one, is based on the desire and embrace of “civil and religious liberties for all, special privileges for none” and the need for common law. Dissident Republicanism and Extreme Islamists threaten such liberties and laws, and sadly we have experienced the pain and loss which they inflict.

The temptation is to ‘mirror’ the forces of extreme militants. The challenge is to champion civil and religious liberties along with our common law, so that our future is one of freedom and fraternity.