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A Christian Case for Religious Liberty

Secular liberals and conservative opponents of political liberalism both see religious liberty as the product of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. According to the secular liberal narrative, religion—at least Christianity—is intolerant and prone to violence. Indeed, the modern state became the schoolmaster of faith precisely because its adherents had become so unruly and violent during the Reformation and subsequent wars of religion. Once religious pluralism became a fact and the state held the social monopoly on violence, European societies learned to embrace religious tolerance. Religious liberty and liberty of conscience came from enlightened reactions to religion, not religion itself.

Conservative critics of religious liberty agree, but see religious liberty’s Enlightenment roots as evidence of its cheapening of religion. They claim that religious liberty is an impossible attempt to be neutral about the highest human goods that ought to order a society; it is a cloak for religious or anti-religious commitments, or relativism.

Religious Liberty and Faith

Robert Louis Wilken argues directly against the secular liberal critique and by implication against the conservative illiberal one. In Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, the eminent historian of Christianity shows how the idea of religious liberty present in the earliest fathers of the Church was employed in the stormy debates of the Reformation and the American founding. Wilken argues that religious liberty’s critics get the story backwards: Religious liberty is the fruit of Christianity, not the Enlightenment or later secular thought, and was present in Christian thought from the very beginning.  Over time, Christian thinkers came to consider religious freedom or liberty of conscience not only a matter of toleration (a policy of restraint toward objectionable beliefs) or an accommodation from ruling authorities, but “a natural right that belongs to all human beings.”

Wilken’s historical essay focuses on a collection of themes. First, religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart, accountable to God alone, and for that reason cannot be coerced. Second, “conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that carries an obligation to act.” And third, human society is governed by two powers, religious and political. He also argues that from the beginning, proponents of religious liberty advocated for the rights of communities to practice their faith publicly as well as the liberty of the individual conscience. Religious liberty was never only a private, individual freedom focused on belief, but a communal one focused on action.

Public practice was the original catalyst of the Christian argument for religious liberty. In the ancient world, there was no distinction between the secular or civic and the sacred. When Christians refused to participate in civic religious practices, they were prosecuted as enemies of the state. In response, they penned apologies in defense of their faith. The Romans wanted all citizens to perform the same religious practices, regardless of their personal convictions. In his Apology, the second-century writer Tertullian argued that religion arose from inner conviction and that different convictions would lead to the worship of different gods.

Persecution would foster not right religion, but irreligion, which was worse than idolatry. Let each man worship as he pleases, Tertullian wrote: “See that you do not end up fostering irreligion by taking away freedom of religion [libertas religionis] and forbid free choice with respect to divine matters, so that I am not allowed to worship what I wish, but am forced to worship what I do not wish. Not even a human being would like to be honored unwillingly.” This is the first usage of the phrase “freedom of religion” in the history of Western civilization.

A decade later, Scapula, the Roman proconsul in North Africa, ordered that Christians be suppressed. Tertullian wrote a short tract in response, arguing that the gods do not desire offerings from the unwilling. Lack of conviction makes religious practice vacuous. Neither differing convictions nor differing practices harm other members of society: “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature [humani iuris et naturalis potestatis] that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms or helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice and not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

The Birth of Conscience

Tertullian also argues that Christians cannot participate in Roman religious rites because of “our conscience.” The idea of conscience came into Christian thought from Paul’s argument that while the Gentiles do not have the Jewish law, there is a law written in their hearts and their conscience bears witness to it, accusing or excusing their deeds (Romans 2:15). In his essay The Testimony of the Soul, Wilken writes, Tertullian calls conscience “‘the knowledge of the soul,’ an inner certainty that comes not from oneself but from God. . . . The testimony of conscience is not about being true to oneself, but about obedience to the voice of God.” Liberty of conscience gives the freedom necessary for following God’s commands.

Some decades later, Lactantius wrote the Divine Institutes, a major exposition of Christian teaching in light of philosophical opposition to Christianity and the violence of the Diocletian persecution. He notes that the Romans compel Christians to observe their public rites in a manner contrary to the “law of humanity and divine justice.” Instead of persuading by argument or appeal to divine revelation, they use violence.

However, Lactantius argues, “religion cannot be imposed by force.” The will can be moved “only by words, not by blows.” Roman religion is only about external acts; real religion is a matter of convictions about God and a life of virtue. Wilken concludes: “In a nice flourish, Lactantius wrote that the hearts of men can be won not by ‘killing’ but by ‘dying.’ Only persuasion can lead free men to God.” These arguments inspired the Edict of Milan in 313, which granted freedom to “all men to follow whatever religion each one wishes.”

After the conversion of Constantine, religion still held society together—but now the Christians were in charge. Constantine established religious liberty for all citizens of the empire, but the establishment of Christianity meant the diminishment of other sects over time. For example, Augustine originally opposed using force against Donatist schismatics, arguing that “no one should be forced to the unity of Christ.” But when they began to assault Catholic bishops, Augustine concluded that only force could constrain the Donatists. For the first time, Wilken writes, “a prominent bishop offered a theological rationale for repressive measures by the state against a schismatic group.”

Still, most Christian leaders continued to teach that faith must be freely adopted. Persecution of the Jews became more frequent, but popes from Gregory the Great to Innocent III inveighed against forced baptisms. Charlemagne made the refusal to be baptized a capital offense among the conquered Saxons, but his teacher Alcuin of York protested: “Faith arises from the will, not from compulsion. . . . You can persuade a man to believe, but you cannot force him. You may even be able to force him to be baptized, but this will not instill the faith within him.” And later medieval authors such as Thomas Aquinas and Peter John Olivi argued that obedience to conscience could trump obedience to lawful authority.

Religious Unity

The religious conflicts of the Reformation called into question the idea that religious unity was essential for public order and concord. In France, Michel de l’Hôpital argued that the Huguenots’ theological heresy did not constitute treason. It was the business of the crown to maintain the realm’s order, not its faith. Three decades later, the Edict of Nantes in 1598 acknowledged that religious pluralism might be a permanent feature of Christian societies.

Appeals to conscience became more pronounced as the religious divisions in societies increased. As German cities become Lutheran, religious communities become contested and persecuted. Nuns defended themselves and their way of life with appeals to conscience. Caritas Pirckheimer, abbess of a Franciscan convent in Nuremburg, wrote that the City Council “knew very well that we had always obeyed them before in all temporal things. But [in] what concerned our soul, we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”

During the Dutch Revolt against Spanish authority, Dutch authors argued that liberty of conscience meant public free exercise as well as private belief. They also for the first time argued that freedom of conscience is a natural right in the contemporary sense. This is clearest in an anonymous treatise entitled Good Admonition to the Good Citizens of Brussels (1579):

This freedom does not have its origin in the Pacification of Ghent, but properly belongs to an individual by nature and by natural right because religion is a bond that a person has with God. It is for this reason that he owes an account to no one besides God alone. This whole thing is well known and requires no proof. If people did not have the freedom to accept and hold such religion as they deem good according to conscience, then the Christian religion could never have gotten its start. On the contrary, our parents would have had to stay in the heathen religion which they had once accepted without ever being able to change it.

These ideas made their way across the Atlantic to the American colonies, where they influenced Philip Furneaux, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. In 1814 Jefferson purchased a copy of Tertullian, now in the Library of Congress. When Wilken opened it to Ad Scapulam’s passage on religious liberty, he found a large X marked in the margin.

Wilken ably proves his argument for the Christian roots of religious liberty against its secular critics. But since he began his research, more Christians have come to argue that society needs the unity of religious establishment and coercive force to direct its members to the right goods. They see the separation of religious and political power as a false aspect of the liberal political order. Yes, they would argue, Catholics like Thomas More appealed to conscience against swearing to the Act of Succession, but he grounded his conscience on the “general consail of Christendome.”

Worship Freely Given

Yes, John Calvin argued that in temporal matters Christians are subject to civil authority and only subject to God in matters of faith. But he came to believe that a well-ordered society required laws on religion: “No polity can be successfully established unless piety is its first cause.” The American Puritan John Cotton would argue that “it is not lawful to persecute any for Conscience sake”—as long as that conscience is “rightly informed.” The Indians could not be compelled to embrace the true faith, but the baptized could be compelled to the point of death to follow it. Error had no rights, whether it came from the pope or Roger Williams. Tertullian’s dictum about one man’s religion not harming another could only be true of private belief, not public practice.

Wilken offers no direct argument against Christian critiques of religious liberty, but such an argument is implicit in his work. Like other aspects of the liberal order, religious liberty and freedom of conscience exist in the West because Christians developed them from the truths they held. Those concepts should be understood rightly, not discarded. Perhaps our society could use a more robust religious foundation, but respect for human dignity and the worship the Christian God desires require religious liberty.

Physically compelling conversion or obedience to religious authorities is conducive to irreligion, not right religion. Tertullian and Lactantius were right on this question; John Cotton, John Calvin, and so many of their medieval forebears were wrong.

Reader Discussion

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on August 02, 2019 at 17:50:17 pm

Both today's secularists and their Christian critics too often refer to the Enlightenment as if it represented a single undivided viewpoint. There was, in fact, no single "Enlightenment" viewpoint, any more than there is a single viewpoint in any era of history.

Rationalists and empiricists, materialists, idealists and dualists, Christians, skeptics, deists, and atheists - all considered themselves "enlightened" in the 18th Century. It was the Age of Reason, yes. It was also the Age of Sensibility. People who contributed to the culture of the Enlightenment were as diverse in their views on many subjects as people today.

In particular, the views of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding religion and its role in society were very different. Locke, a rational Christian and not a Deist, wrote a book called The Reasonableness of Christianity. Rousseau anticipated Nietzsche, regarding "true" Christianity as a religion fit only for slaves. It could never be compatible with a free society, he believed, because a Christian's loyalty was always divided between God and the State. In this respect, he felt that early Islam was superior to Christianity. What he truly wanted, however, was to make a new "civil religion" that was essentially deist and totally subservient to the state.

This idea of "civil religion" was put to the test during the French Revolution. It led to civil war and mass murder. Only after orgy of judicial murder known as "the Terror" did the Thermidorian reaction separate Church and State, and only briefly. Napoleon reunited them, and so it remained in France until the Third Republic. By then, religion was considered so hostile to republican government that the policy of Laïcité - secularization of society by the state - became and remains the norm in France and many other countries that have followed that path.

It is worth noting that our founders took a very different path.

By the time of the American Revolution, public opinion had moved from Lockean toleration to embrace freedom of conscience in religion as a natural right. But the various states had in place varied solutions to the church-state matter. In consequence, the founders of the United States separated church and state at the federal level, leaving the issue of establishment to the states. Most states (after some experimentation with general assessments and other looser forms of establishment in some instances) went through the process of disestablishment as well during the founding generation. Connecticut and Massachusetts followed suit by the 1830s.

Until the middle of the 20th century, however, there was no attempt to secularize society in the U.S. as was done in France and other nations in Europe - and even post-Ottoman Turkey. Religious people in America enjoyed free exercise of their faith - not just in private, but also in the public square. The harmony this resulted in surprised and even shocked the young Alexis de Tocqueville, who had always witnessed religion as the enemy of freedom in his home country.

With a few notable exceptions, religious peace prevailed for over two centuries under the American model of non-establishment and tolerance of public expression. (If the founders had only done as well with race relations as they had with religion, we might have truly been "a nation on a hill" to the rest of the world!)

In recent decades, the Religious Right and the Secular Left have both pushed agendas at odds with this long tradition. Each offers its own revisionist history of the founding. We would do well to study our history again.

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Rob Zrabkowski
on August 02, 2019 at 18:55:59 pm

Yep - right about *THE* Enlightenment - there were indeed many differing views.

I would suggest that the "agenda pushing" by the secular Left and the Religious right is of different origins or postures as it would appear the Rights agenda pushing is more "defensive" and a reaction to the fulminating fantasies of the Left.
This is not to excuse the occasional excesses of the Right.

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gabe
on August 02, 2019 at 19:32:27 pm

Above all else, we must remember that rights come from God, not the state.

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Jason Johnson
on August 03, 2019 at 03:52:26 am

Rationalists and empiricists, materialists, idealists and dualists, Christians, skeptics, deists, and atheists – all considered themselves “enlightened” in the 18th Century. """

Lol. What a crock. You don't know what the difference btwn Christianity and atheism is? Start high school over.

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Oft
on August 03, 2019 at 03:59:53 am

 Indeed, the modern state became the schoolmaster of faith precisely because its adherents had become so unruly and violent during the Reformation and subsequent wars of religion. """"

Indeed what? The modern liberal order are the same ss the evangelical Christians of the reformation? Dude, you need to seriously study.

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Oft
on August 03, 2019 at 04:10:00 am

Religious liberty and liberty of conscience came from enlightened reactions to religion, not religion itself."""

Catholics didn't allow liberty of conscience. The reformation was not an enlightened reaction. It was true Christianity through great men with divine power that stood up to tyranny. Only the true religion could have access to God's power to overthrow the evil of romanism, proving it was the Christian faith that liberty of conscience came from.

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Oft
on August 03, 2019 at 04:20:46 am

Not even a human being would like to be honored unwillingly.”"""

No unconverted man with a dead spirit has the capacity to honor God without God forcing the man from his unwillingness. Tertullian was not reformed and didn't understand the sovereignty of God.

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Oft
on August 03, 2019 at 08:04:24 am

"In particular, the views of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding religion and its role in society were very different. Locke, a rational Christian and not a Deist, wrote a book called The Reasonableness of Christianity. Rousseau anticipated Nietzsche, regarding “true” Christianity as a religion fit only for slaves. It could never be compatible with a free society, he believed, because a Christian’s loyalty was always divided between God and the State. In this respect, he felt that early Islam was superior to Christianity. What he truly wanted, however, was to make a new “civil religion” that was essentially deist and totally subservient to the state."

But didn't Rousseau, like Locke also call himself a Christian and present his Enlightenment ideas under the auspices of Christianity. Yes, Rousseau may have argued against a particular kind of Christianity. And esoterically he may have have been a believer at all. But the exact same thing can be said about Locke.

For the record I don't think Locke was an esoteric atheist or deist, but rather was some kind of closet unitarian in a day and age where it was illegal to publicly deny the Trinity. His book "The Reasonableness of Christianity" got him accused of being a closet Socinian by an orthodox theologian. Locke answered by dancing around the issue.

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Jonathan Rowe
on August 03, 2019 at 09:20:51 am

I would say you are reading Locke accurately, but not Rousseau. Locke does avoid discussion of the Trinity and may have been a Unitarian. Rousseau makes his personal views clear in The Confessions of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar. They are Deist. He may have considered himself a Christian, but it is a Christianity stripped of much of its doctrine.

In chapter VII of The Social Contract he discusses Civil Religion and clearly paints Christianity- in both its “Roman” form and its “true” form as the enemy of a free society.

What is most significant is the way the French Enlightenment views Christianity as hostile to liberty. Voltaire and the Encyclopedists are even more overtly hostile to the Christian faith. There is nothing remotely like this in 18th Century Anglo-American thought.

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Rob
on August 03, 2019 at 10:30:32 am

Really Voltaire was that bad? The French Revolution eventually became overtly hostile to Christianity. It really didn't start off that way. It started as arguably a continuation of the American.

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Jonathan Rowe
on August 03, 2019 at 15:30:35 pm

Voltaire:

Tout homme sensé, tout homme de bien, doit avoir la secte chrétienne en horreur.

Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.

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Rob
on August 03, 2019 at 16:28:17 pm

In some ways, the French Revolution started off with ideals similar to the American and became progressively radical. But the approach toward religion was different from the very first. Some clergy supported it, which was critical in breaking down the Estates General and forming the National Assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man has a somewhat weak statement that "No one can be disturbed for his opinions, even religions ones, provided their expression does not infringe the public order declared by the law." It does not explicitly recognize the Catholic Church, but neither did it not separate Church and state.

Very soon, on the suggestion of Tallyrand, the Church's property was confiscated wholesale to pay the nation's debts. Then in the spring of 1790, just a year into the Revolution, the Assembly approved the creation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which effectively reduced the status of clergy to civil servants. This led to a schism of the Gallican Church along with civil unrest. Unrest intensified into civil war with the downfall of the monarchy. Then in "Year II" there was a systematic and violent attempt at dechristianisation of the country.

During the Terror new "cults" were promoted to replace Christianity: first the atheistic Cult of Reason and then - led by Robespierre - the deist Cult of the Supreme Being. This hideous nonsense finally quiets down after the downfall of Robespierre in the Thermidorean Reaction, and for a few years Church and State are separated. Napoleon, however, made a concordat with the Pope and reinstated the traditional place of the Gallican Church. Only in 1905 was the French state finally secularized.

For the whole story, I recommend Religion and Revolution in France 1780-1804 by Nigel Aston. But Simon Schama covered much of it 30-odd years ago in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.

My point in all this is that "the Enlightenment" changed the relationship of Church and State everywhere, but not in the same way. In the U.S. religion - separated from the state but not opposed by it - thrived for two centuries. We need to reestablish that balance by defending "the free exercise thereof," not by romanticizing the pre-Enlightenment world or trying to fashion some newfangled "Establishment lite."

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Rob
on August 05, 2019 at 00:30:08 am

[…] A Christian Case for Religious Liberty Nathaniel Peters, Law and Liberty […]

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PowerLinks 08.05.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on August 06, 2019 at 02:24:43 am

I think Locke basically had the right balance in setting Protestant Christianity at the foundation of the basic structure of a free society while tolerating other perspectives.

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Christopher Graves
on August 08, 2019 at 07:50:29 am

Good discussion. Whether Papal suzerainty or Erastian venture, the origins of our free exercise and establishment clauses are not products of the Enlightenment, but, in the religious context, the ongoing expression of a Reformation to individual, as opposed to community (sorry, Prof Wilken), belief and action, particularly respecting conscience, the 'conscience' of a community impossible without the active CONsent of its individual members, and there in assent to God as inspired by His Spirit in His word. There can be no consensus without 'soul liberty'. This Biblical formula, working well before many became conscious of it, has been at the root of a 'self-locomotion' acting in concert, and there to Grace in the giving, not for even its own sake, but for the glory of God the Father through Christ in the Spirit. See 2 Cor 8-9. Hence, the bar to 'establishment', if only to sustain the liberty necessary to inspire individual Biblical belief without institutional or greater human authority intervening, however benignly. See, 2 Ti 3: 15-17. The highest and best, and there despite the freedom to fall, indeed the actual stumbling and fall. The greatness of our American polity is an order protecting the imitation of Paul in the imitation of Christ, and there without the shackles of constricting baggage, whether of Church or state. And that imitation , producing sound discipline and 'fruits of the Spirit', achieves a 'civility' going to gentility enabling peace and prosperity in the practice of true virtue throughout and beyond the bounds of our polity. And that 'constitution' is worth protecting.

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gdp
on December 03, 2019 at 11:38:21 am

In my book I am writing from a Christian perspective and I argue for the separation of church and state from both a historical and Biblical perspective. I believe it will be helpful to debunk notions that separation of church and state is an anti-Christian idea, and that we should help spread awareness of the importance of freedom of conscience for ALL. I haven't read Wilken yet, but I suspect we have a similar thesis based on this review.

It is available in both digital: https://www.amazon.com/Not-This-World-Religious-Christian-ebook/dp/B081ZFRFYC/

and paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Not-This-World-Religious-Christian/dp/0578227975/

History has shown religious freedom and toleration for ALL increases harmony and prosperity. If you aren't convinced, be thankful you aren't living in a country where you are dragged to prison just because you couldn't get yourself to believe in the state's religion/non-religion.

Cheers,

Lemuel V. Sapian

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Lemuel Sapian
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on August 28, 2020 at 06:25:01 am

[…] of Christianity, not a foreign enemy. Robert Louis Wilken shows that religious liberty had its origins in Christian theology and was not the discovery of a secularism that stepped in to chastise and corral unruly believers. […]

on August 28, 2020 at 07:47:15 am

[…] of Christianity, not a foreign enemy. Robert Louis Wilken shows that religious liberty had its origins in Christian theology and was not the discovery of a secularism that stepped in to chastise and corral unruly believers. […]

on August 28, 2020 at 11:33:31 am

[…] of Christianity, not a overseas enemy. Robert Louis Wilken reveals that religious liberty had its origins in Christian theology and was not the invention of a secularism that stepped in to chastise and corral unruly believers. […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.