Berkley Forum

The Rights of Infidels in a New World

Responding to Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries

Most Anglophone treatments of the development of individual rights in the West revolve around north transatlantic debates concerning the toleration of Christian heretics (or infidels), wherein the right of conscience against papal power or established state religion became a crucial catalyst for modern democratic liberties and national independence. John Locke’s protracted epistolary feud with Jonas Proast and Roger Williams’ rhetorical battle with John Cotton are key historical examples from England and colonial America. The principle of toleration, indissoluble from the general thrust of Reformation Europe, set the political stage for a modern democratic order in search of greater freedom of thought and expression for all individuals.

This standard Anglophone and historically Protestant narrative offers an important though inadequate story about the struggle for liberty and the development of rights in the West, especially in the Americas. By focusing on political citizenship and national sovereignty after the Reformation and Westphalia, the standard narrative largely neglects the ideological underside of liberty and rights in extra-European contexts of imperial conquest and colonial settlement. European assertions of a universal right to preach the Gospel unhindered, or a natural right to punish and subjugate populations deemed unfit to govern themselves, or an exclusive individual right to private property in underutilized foreign lands, provided legal armor to Spanish and English colonial expansion. The European dispossession of indigenous peoples under various legal pretexts, bolstered by biblical and theological justifications, tells a different story about the ambivalent development of rights in the West. From this perspective, John Locke and Roger Williams appear at odds rather than as fellow comrades on the road toward greater equality.

Christian debates concerning the toleration of the infidel other reach back to Roman late antiquity when Christian emperors addressed the unlawfulness of pagan rituals and Bishop Augustine responded to the claim over church property by a heretical group called Donatists. Augustine’s recommendation to apply the fear of punishment under imperial decree in order to coerce infidels (both pagans and heretics) to renounce their prejudices and seek the truth instead cast a shadow in the West. Medieval and early modern discussions about religious toleration and the use of force to evangelize unbelievers provided extensive commentary on this infamous prescription. Yet much of the current historiography has restricted its analysis of religious toleration to the question of the heretic, thereby overlooking the place of the non-Christian in the canon legal and scholastic theological traditions.

In an effort to expand the Anglophone narrative about toleration and rights, sixteenth-century Spanish debates concerning the freedom of the native peoples of America merit attention. The controversy over the “affairs of the Indies” raised old questions in radically new colonial contexts. At stake in these debates were the freedom and rights not of Christian heretics, but of non-Christian infidels. The anchor point of this alternative narrative of the Latin West was the 1550-1551 junta at Valladolid between the Dominican Bishop and canon lawyer Bartolome de las Casas and the imperial humanist and royal chronicler Juan Gines de Sepulveda. These two impressive minds of the Spanish Catholic Renaissance brought into sharp focus divergent but pre-existing views on the religious coercion and religious rights of infidels within Latin Christendom. The junta addressed the question of whether or not it was lawful to wage religious war against Native Americans in order to civilize and evangelize them.

In opposition to royalist-papalist and imperial-humanist support for European titles to war, Las Casas and other Spanish Dominican theologians at the University of Salamanca appropriated and expanded a scholastic-juristic tradition of natural law to promote the basic rights and freedoms of every member of the human family under God. In an unprecedented way, they appealed to a universal juridical order and ecclesiastical forum transcending Spanish imperial power to protect non-European unbelievers from unjust political aggression and colonial oppression. They believed that God’s image belonged to all human beings, specifically innocent and impoverished Amerindians. The Amerindian other—the infidel subject of natural rights in spiritual, political, and economic matters—was not a savage beast but a divine image-bearing rational creature conferred with dignity, capable of receiving the faith, and deservingly called neighbor and brother. The image of God punctuated an objective safeguard for expressing the subjective universal rights of indigenous peoples and securing their political immunity from imperial and papal claims to the contrary. This legacy has continued in the preferential option for the poor and dispossessed of modern papal social teaching and the post-conciliar church of Latin America.

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