March 12: From Luther to Luther King: A History of Freedom of Conscience

Called before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther refused to disavow his call for reform, declaring, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe.” Accustomed as we are to the idea of individual freedom of conscience, it may be hard for us to appreciate what a radical stand this was at the time. To a great extent, Luther set the basis for freedom of conscience, although he may not have seen all its implications. The first implication is that we may no longer kill or punish those who do not believe as the ruler does. A few decades later, when the Protestant reformers in Geneva burned Miguel Servet for heresy, Sébastien Castellion declared that “killing somebody is not defending a doctrine, it is just killing somebody.” Castellion challenged the idea – widely held even among the Protestant reformers – that uniformity of belief was something to be enforced. In a world torn apart by religious fanaticism, this idea is perhaps more important than ever. In this forum, François Lichère, Professor of Law at Aix Marseille University, looks at the history of freedom of conscience from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, exploring at the same time some of its problematic aspects.