Religion and Community

Adam Smith on the Virtues of Liberty

in Theoria
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The architects of what one might call ‘classical’ or ‘Enlightenment’ liberalism saw themselves as committed to refuting the claims to political sovereignty by organized religion.2 The arguments against the legitimacy of a state-supported religion, and in the extreme case, of a religious monopoly, are so integral a part of the Enlightenment’s effort to put politics on a stable and just foundation as to constitute one of the controlling themes of the period. Liberal politics requires toleration, or better, liberty of religious belief. And this in turn implies that religious institutions be privatized, as it were, and that just politics be secularized. Legitimate rule is to lie in the consent of the ruled rather than in the laws of God as interpreted by his ministers on earth. Differences in religious outlook are to be settled, as Jefferson tells us, by persuasion, not by force, and persuasion is a private matter. The state has no role to play except (to simplify somewhat) that of preventing the use of force by the parties involved. As Jefferson strikingly puts it: ‘The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg … Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments [against error in religion].’

Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

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