The care therefore of every man’s soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul? I answer, what if he neglect the care of his health, or of his estate, which things are nearer related to the government of the magistrate than the other? Will the magistrate provide by an express law, that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves.

—John Locke. A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689.

The government has no right to impose religion on unbelievers, or to proselytize using the fruits of coercion (tax revenues). If it is accepted that all men are equal, then there can be no pretext whatsoever for supposing that others are more fit to determine questions of religion than the person whose soul is in jeopardy. Thus, the government must never encourage religion, discourage religion, or otherwise involve itself with religion. This was explained by Thomas Jefferson in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. (January 1, 1802).

Today, this wall of separation is used to cry foul over the teaching of creationism in state-run schools. However, the real issue is not what beliefs should find favor in the government’s classrooms, but whether the government should be operating classrooms in the first place. This is because the wall of separation only causes controversy when the government trespasses into fields in which it does not belong. For example:

  1. The discord over whether government schools should teach religion only exists because the government wrongfully intrudes into the field of education. After all, no one protests against what is taught in a privately-run or religious school any more than they protest what is taught around another family’s dinner table.
  2. The ban on religious ministers endorsing candidates for political office, a gross violation of freedom of speech, only exists because the government wrongfully favors religious institutions with tax-free status.
  3. Disputes over chapels placed within public hospitals only exist because the government wrongfully owns hospitals. After all, when a hospital run by the Catholic Church installs a chapel, no one protests.

Pernicious sects

The Turks make God the author of everything that they do, and of every evil that others suffer from them … God, they say, blesses and approves the event, else he would prevent it. So that, upon this principle, there can be no such thing as wickedness and villainy amongst them … This impious tenet of that brutish people arms them with fierceness and outrage against one another, and all the world; it animates them to commit rapine and butcheries, and then sears their consciences, and prevents all remorse. Nay, they glory in executing cruelty, because it is the judgment of God, and they are his agents. I wish I could keep this dreadful principle out of Christendom; but I am sorry to say, that it is common amongst us. Whoever applies the judgment of God to others, has this Turkish spirit in him: And all men that make such applications, reason so foolishly.

—Thomas Gordon. Cato’s Letters No. 52, Of Divine Judgments: The Wickedness and Absurdity of Applying Them to Men and Events, Saturday, November 11, 1721.

The belief that God sanctions murder and violence in defense of the ‘true faith’ has no place in a civilized society. How then should a country deal with radical Islamic clerics within its borders, who incite their congregants to mass murder? Nathaniel Chipman addressed this topic:


Such were the opinions formerly held by the Roman Catholic Church. It was sedulously inculcated as an essential article of their religious creed, that no faith was to be kept with heretics, dissenters from the doctrines of that Church, that it was meritorious in the sight of Heaven to assassinate heretical princes and rulers, and to subvert, by any means, every government which rejected its dogmas, and declined its authority.

… No penalties could provide an effectual restraint upon men, who were persuaded they merited the favor of Heaven by the commission of the most horrid crimes. It became therefore necessary, as far as possible, to prevent the propagation of a religion so inseparably blended with such pernicious opinions.

… I believe every unprejudiced person will see and acknowledge that the restraints imposed by these laws, were no more inconsistent with true religious liberty, than the laws of society for the prevention of theft, robbery, and murder, are inconsistent with civil liberty. It is due here to observe that … the Roman Catholics of Great Britain have universally renounced them as gross heresies, in consequence of which those severe laws have been repealed and they have been restored to all their rights, civil, political, and religious. (Principles of Government: A Treatise on Free Institutions, 1833).

Thus laws stifling the propagation of murderous doctrines are quite consistent with liberty. This is because such pretended religions are, in essence, conspiracies to murder. Thus Thomas Gordon included this exception in his defense of religious liberty: “The distressing or disturbing of any sort of people in any sort of worship, however false and ridiculous, where the same does not violate property or human society, is an invasion of the rights of nature and conscience, and no man can do it with a wise and honest design” [emphasis added]. (Cato’s Letters No. 31, Dr. Prideaux’s reasoning about the death of Cambyses, examined; whether the same was a judgment for his killing the Egyptian god Apis, Saturday, November 18, 1721).

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove