Just as with other facets of the human experience, when it comes to religion, coercive interactions necessarily must be made at the expense of at least one innocent party, inevitably leading to an unjust and anti-social whole; while cooperative, voluntary interactions necessarily result in all parties involved being better off, inevitably leading to a just and mutually beneficial whole.
One of the earliest uses of the term “voluntaryism” occurred in association with the “Levellers” of 17th-century England who advocated for separation of church and state by abolishing the coercive support of the church. Up until this time, as noted by influential educational theorist Albert Jay Nock, “[t]he State was then a very weak institution; the Church was very strong. The individual was born into the Church, as his ancestors had been for generations, in precisely the formal, documented fashion in which he is now born into the State. He was taxed for the Church’s support, as he now is for the State’s support. He was supposed to accept the official theory and doctrine of the Church, to conform to its discipline, and in a general way to do as it told him; again, precisely the sanctions that the State now lays upon him. If he were reluctant or recalcitrant, the Church made a satisfactory amount of trouble for him, as the State now does” (Our Enemy, the State, 1935). It was also during this time that religion was considered an essential institution — on the same list as justice, infrastructure, education, and armed services — that would not be able to sustain itself without financial assistance from the state.
Corruption is almost unavoidably the natural result of coercion, and nowhere is this more shamefully and infamously exemplified than in the medieval church’s history of debauchery, inquisitions and witch hunts. With the enlightenment and its resulting Industrial Revolution has come an era in which religion has become a voluntary institution. This has resulted in bringing hope and peace into the lives of many, and those whose lives have been touched have been a force for voluntary welfare services and mutual aid that have traditionally been far superior to state counterparts. Indeed, as Lew Rockwell has pointed out, “we do need to observe that vices and virtues — and our conception of what constitutes proper behavior and culture generally — have a strong bearing on the rise and decline of freedom … In our country and in our times, a productive free-market economy, one supported by a strong sense of personal responsibility and a moral commitment to the security of property rights, has one great enemy: the interventionist state. It is the state that taxes, regulates, and inflates, distorting a system that would otherwise operate smoothly, productively, and to the great benefit of all, generating wealth, security, and peace, and creating the conditions necessary for the flourishing of everything we call civilization … the mirror image of these virtues shows how the virtuous mode of human behavior finds its opposite in public policies employed by the modern state” (“The Sinful State,” 2011).
Morality is essential to the welfare of a free society, and governments throughout the ages have attempted to legislate it; but since the state’s only tool is coercion, it can never truly bring about morality. “[B]y forcing men to be ‘moral’ — i.e., to act morally — the conservative or liberal jailkeepers would in reality deprive men of the very possibility of being moral,” observes noted economist Murray Rothbard. “The concept of ‘morality’ makes no sense unless the moral act is freely chosen” (For a New Liberty, 1973).
The good of society has been used as an excuse to violently persecute vice for many centuries, but violence and force never produced virtue. It only created hypocrisy and suffering. True goodness and virtue can only be brought about by persuasion and the free choice of the individual. “The resort to violence is a confession of weakness because he who would employ force would not do so unless his arguments and reasoning were weak and unconvincing,” observed historian Carl Watner. “Truth or the effort to obtain the truth does not need to rely on force” (“For Conscience’s Sake,” 1992).
The absence of coercive support of religion, and the resulting need for religious views and voices to compete in an age of relatively unfettered communication, has yielded a rich and diverse religious spectrum in modern times; however, “Church and State will never truly be separated until either one or the other disappears. Tax exemption of church property or taxation of church property? So long as a State engages in compulsory taxation to raise its revenue, it must inevitably impact on the religious sphere” (Watner, 1992).
I hate to pick on the Deseret News again, but they keep making it so easy. The paper called on Americans to condemn the planned burning of copies of the Quran by the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida. In doing so, the News has joined the U.S. government, thousands of Indonesian protesters, General David Petraeus, the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the White House, NATO, Hillary Clinton, the Vatican, and the United Nations. All of this attention and condemnation aimed at a 50-member church that wants to burn some books.
As with the “Ground Zero” mosque debate, both sides are completely missing the point on this issue. Those defending the mosque pleaded for religious freedom, while those opposed called for sensitivity. Those defending this little church in Florida are asking for religious freedom and crying free speech, while those opposed are worried about sensitivity and national security. But none of this matters, because both of these issues boil down to one principle: property.
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