Disentangling Conscience and Religion

What does “liberty of conscience” mean? Religious liberty? Freedom of strong conviction? Freedom of thought? Since the Founding Era, Americans have used liberty of conscience to paper over disputes about the proper scope of religious, moral, and philosophical liberty. This Article explores the relationship between conscience and religion in history, political theory, and theology, and proposes a conception of conscience that supports a liberty of conscience distinct from religious liberty. In doing so, it offers a theoretical basis for distinguishing between conscience and religion in First Amendment scholarship and related fields. Conscience is best understood, for purposes of legal theory, as a universal faculty that issues moral commands and judgments. This conception overlaps with religion but is not concentric with it. On one hand, conscience may be informed by religious beliefs (or by nonreligious beliefs). On the other, religious beliefs and practices may be entirely independent of conscience. Protecting fidelity to conscience, whether religious or nonreligious, promotes integrity and undermines the government’s pretensions to moral totalitarianism. This conception of conscience is coherent enough to support a legal right and valuable enough to deserve one.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.