Soul Rape

by Carl Watner

The modern nation-state is predicated upon exercising control over a certain geographical territory, and depends on revenues which it generates by means of threats and/or compulsion. The English colonists, when they emigrated to New England in the early 17th Century, replicated much of the political and religious environment they had left behind. Every newborn was a British citizen, a loyal subject of the King and local colonial government; everyone was considered to be by birth a member of the local Congregational church; most white males were subject to militia duty and had to pay taxes for the support of the government and church in the parish in which they lived.

Dissenters and nonconformists, like the Baptists and Quakers who chose not to support the colonial religious establishment, founded their own churches, designated their own ministers, and paid them directly (if they were paid at all). Their refusal to sanction the Congregational establishment led to fines, confiscations of property, and often imprisonment. Many were so stubborn that “they refused to let anyone pay their taxes for them. They preferred to prove their loyalty to their principles by going to jail.” One elderly Baptist widow, Esther White, spent thirteen months in jail “because she would not pay the eight-penny tax levied on her.” [1] These resisters were not tax dodgers or cheats. They could not honestly support or attend the services of a religion they did not believe in. “Going to prison [wa]s a hard way to avoid paying taxes,” and they often complained that “the worst part of going to jail for refusing to pay their religious taxes was the ungodly company they had to associate with there.” [2]

Their opponents in the Congregational establishment shared “a universal assumption that the stability of the social order and the safety of the state demanded the religious solidarity of all people in one church.” [3] “The safety and welfare of [the] community rested on the morality and virtue of its citizens: Christianity was the best system of morality and religion ever revealed to man; therefore, the [community] should, for its own good and the good of its people, use its taxing power to see that the Christian religion was supported and promulgated.” [4]

The Congregationalists of New England believed that separation of church and state and religious voluntaryism would be unworkable. Men were too depraved to voluntarily support the proper number of churches and ministers. “In their view a good society justified taxes for support of religion just as it did for support of law, courts, highways, and public schools.” [5] They believed that “churches were necessary to give consolation to the grieving, moral order to the common people, and the fear of God to potential lawbreakers. … They did not trust the common man to support religion voluntarily … because ‘history taught’ that human nature is always guided more by self-interest, passion, and lust for power than by benevolence, charity and generosity. ‘The first want of man,’ John Adams said, ‘is his dinner, the second, his girl’.” The “most important check on human depravity was” the required preachings of “morality, piety, and fear of God taught in the churches” every Sunday. [6]

The analogy between the monopolistic religious establishment and the monopolistic political establishment was a well-recognized argument used against the dissenters. “Where would society be if everyone who disliked a law refused to obey it?” [7] The question of taxation to support religion was compared to taxation to support roads, courts, and police. All were “essential to the general welfare.” [8] Religion was so important “to the safety and well-being of society that no state could exist without it.” [9] As Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons of the Massachusetts Supreme Court wrote in 1810, “the distinction between liberty of conscience and worship and the right of appropriating money is material; the former is inalienable, the latter is surrendered as the price of protection” [10] Freedom of conscience was quite distinct from the power to raise money for a public purpose. The argument in favor of exempting “a dissenter from his parish taxes ‘seems to mistake a man’s money for his conscience.’ A contribution to the support of the regular churches, Parsons reasoned, was a contribution to the welfare of the state, and a man had no more right to be exempt from supporting a church he could not attend than to be free from school taxes because he had no children.” [11] Religious taxes, like other taxes required for the support of government, were part of the necessary cost of maintaining a government that provided protection to life, liberty, and property. [12]

Defenders of religious freedom, such as Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson, thought differently. Henry Robinson, a contemporary of Roger Williams, compared the freedom to choose one’s religion to the freedom to engage in work of one’s own choosing. If the government could not designate what sort of work you should choose, why should it have the right to designate what religion you chose to follow? [13] Williams repeatedly used the terms “soul rape,” “soul killing,” and “soul oppression” to illustrate his belief “that being forced to affirm” or being forced to pay for something that “you do not believe can harm the soul” by weakening and deforming it. [14] This “occurs when people are forced … to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.” [15] In her book, LIBERTY 0F CONSCIENCE, Martha Nussbaum discusses Williams’ views on conscience and notes that he defined conscience as a “holy Light,” a “most precious and invaluable Jewel.” It is the essence of a person. Williams thought that “damage to conscience is an intrinsic wrong, a horrible desecration of what is most precious about a human life.” Williams describes “Soul killing” as “the chiefest murder,” and “soule or spirituall Rape” [sic] as being more abominable in the eyes of God than forcing and ravishing “the Bodies of all the Women in the World,” or of blowing up Parliament or cutting the throats of kings or emperors. [16] Jefferson used the words “spiritual tyranny” to describe the violation of a person’s conscience. [17] When he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, he wrote that “…to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of …liberty … .” [18]

Although Williams, and Jefferson, and members of the Baptists and other dissenting sects saw “religious taxation” as “a crime against God” and a violation of one’s religious scruples, none of them ever questioned the propriety of taxation as it applied to the secular realm. [19] They did not see that if it was wrong to force a man to pay for a minister whose service he did not attend, then (by the same reasoning) it would be wrong to force a man to pay for a teacher that did not teach his children. None of them ever attacked church rates as a violation of property rights or as a confiscation of private property. To have done so would have called into question the propriety of all taxation. None of them saw taxation as a violation of the commandment prohibiting theft. What they objected to was the violation of conscience, not realizing that one’s property and conscience were intimately connected. Taxation, in their mind, was okay as long as it was used for a purpose which they approved. It was proper to them to force someone to pay for schools or roads. They saw the provision of roads, and schools, and public order as being essential to human welfare, but they did not realize that these necessary goods and services could be supplied, voluntarily, by entities other than the government. They did not see the connection between the natural right to choose one’s religion and the natural right to make uncoerced choices in all other spheres of human activity. [20]

Today, voluntaryists are forced to support a political establishment, much like the dissenters of several centuries ago were forced to support a religious establishment. Even if one does not accept the claim that society could exist without the state, one ought to see that taxation, whether for religious or political purposes, is a violation of the conscience and property rights of those who oppose the initiatory use of force in human affairs. It is soul rape to be forced to sign a government tax form when one disbelieves in political government. It is soul rape to be forced to use government identification and a government passport for travel. It is soul rape to be forced to contribute to a political institution that one opposes in conscience. To paraphrase Jefferson, it is sinful and tyrannical to be forced to pay for and participate in something that one does not believe in. It is slavery to have all or part of your life controlled by others against your will. It is just as wrong to have your property stolen from you, for whatever the alleged purpose, as it is to be forced to attend a church, whose teachings you do not believe in; or to support a preacher with whom you disagree.

“The right to seek the truth in one’s own way is one of the most important and necessary responsibilities of life.” [21] As Williams would have said, to destroy this right is to destroy the soul because one is being forced to do something that one would not have willingly chosen to do. The way a man chooses to spend his money is a reflection of his personality and his conscience. To coerce a man into paying money for something he does not want or does not agree with is to demand that he surrender his property and his conscience. The common thief says, “Your money or your life.” The government says, “Surrender your money and your conscience, or we will put you in jail.” The voluntaryist is one of the few that sees these demands as equally unjust. Whether emanating from the thief or from the government, such a demand is robbery plain and simple. To describe taxation as soul rape, soul oppression, and soul killing is to seek to delegitimize the State, and to take a step toward the withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which it ultimately depends.

[1] William G. McLoughlin, SOUL LIBERTY: THE BAPTISTS’ STRUGGLE IN NEW ENGLAND, 1630-1833, Hanover: Brown University Press, 1991, pp. 170 and 8-9.
[2] ibid., p. 176 and William G. McLoughlin, NEW ENGLAND DISSENT 1630-1833, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, 2 vols., p. 756.
[3] Winfred E. Garrison, “Characteristics of American Organized Religion,” 25 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY (1948), pp. 14-24 at p. 16.
[4] McCloughlin, SOUL LIBERTY, op. cit., pp. 175 and 202.
[5] ibid., p. 231.
[6] ibid., pp. 231 and 294.
[7] ibid., p. 170.
[8] McLoughlin, NEW ENGLAND DISSENT, p. 610.
[9] ibid., p. 594.
[10] ibid., p. 611 (italics in the original), as summarized by Nathan Dane in his abridgement of Barnes vs. Falmouth.
[11] John D. Cushing, “Notes on Disestablishment in Massachusetts, 1780-1833,” THE WILLIAM AND MARY QUARTERLY, Third Series, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April 1969), pp. 169-190 at p. 184.
[12] McLoughlin, NEW ENGLAND DISSENT, p. 611.
[13] Carl Watner, “‘For Conscience’s Sake’: Voluntaryism and Religious Freedom, in Carl Watner, editor, I MUST SPEAK OUT, San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1999, pp. 404-414 at p. 408. This article originally appeared in THE VOLUNTARYIST No. 55, April 1992. Both versions are available online at and
[14] Martha C. Nussbaum, LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE, New York: Basic Books, 2008, p. 54.
[15] Martha Nussbaum, “Veiled Threats,” THE NEW YORK TIMES “Opinionator,” July 11, 2010 at wanted=print at paragraph 3. Accessed June 12, 2013.
[16] Nussbaum LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE, pp. 54-55. Also see Perry Miller, ROGER WILLIAMS: HIS CONTRIBUTION TO THE AMERICAN TRADITION, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1953, pp. 127 and 264 (footnote 10).
[17] Thomas S. Kidd, GOD OF LIBERTY: A RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, New York: Basic Books, 2010, p. 54.
[18] See Wikipedia entry, “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” paragraphs 5 and 6 of the actual text.
[19] McLoughlin, NEW ENGLAND DISSENT, p. 611.
[20] For more on this general theme, see Watner, op. cit.
[21] ibid., p. 409

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