How the U.S. and U.K. Invented Freedom

The notion of “freedom” spans thousands of years and meant something different to different cultures and peoples. For Westerners, i.e., the Americans, English, French, and the rest of Western Europe, the conception of freedom has been notably shaped by religion, or the lack of it.

It is important to note that while the United States enshrined its American twist on freedom, it is still the offspring of Great Britain and its founders were, after all, Englishmen.

“Separation of church and state”

This is a common phrase in the Western lexicon and is often supported by those who fear that political decisions might be influenced by religious views. But the phrase does not mean that one’s politics cannot reflect his morals. Conservatives argue that they should, using the Declaration of Independence as a prime example.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Jefferson wrote.

That rights could be “inalienable” means that they cannot be taken away. This is what distinguishes “positive rights” and “negative rights.” The former implies rights that rights given and therefore can be taken away. The latter implies rights that are naturally bestowed on individuals by God and hence, cannot be revoked by man.

But if “separation of church and state” does not mean a separation between one’s politics and his religion, then what does it mean, and where does it come from?

The phrase was reportedly coined by Baptists who fought for religious tolerance in Virginia in 1786, whose official state religion was Episcopalian. Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedoms barred a state from declaring an official religion.

It is worth noting here that the American “Bill of Rights” was passed with its first Ten Amendments five years after Jefferson’s act. As it turns out, James Madison fervently argued at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and for years after, that a Bill of Rights should complement the Constitution.

England’s role

The history of England is ripe with religious persecution and is what led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Called the “The Bloodless Revolution,” it involved the overthrow of King James II, a Catholic, and therefore opposed by the Protestant majority. The revolution led to changes in the way England was governed, giving more power to parliament while limiting the monarch.

Just a year later in 1689, the English adopted the “Bill of Rights,” which served as the foundation of the government. Within that same year came the passage of the Toleration Act, granting religious freedom to Protestants within the country. Both of these acts would serve as the influence for America’s “Bill of Rights” and pursuit of religious tolerance.