Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Modern Period (1751 – 2011)

AuthorDavid Little

Against a background of growing official support for control of religion, church bodies began to speak out with renewed resolution in favor of a universal right to freedom of conscience and religion, in some cases going so far as to denounce altogether the resort to force in resolving international conflicts. Such were the declarations, for example, of the Orthodox Church in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, calling for “tolerance towards other religious faiths as a corollary of absolute respect towards human freedom,” for “safeguard[ing] the possibility for the members of every religious and cultural minority to maintain their distinctiveness and particularity,” and for the “utter condemnation” of “war and armed conflict.”

The second half of the eighteenth century was a pivotal period for the emergence of modern conceptions of religious freedom. Conflicting developments reflected the very different experiences of the American and French Revolutions (1776 and 1789). Building on the ideas of Williams and Locke, figures like Isaac Backus of New England, and George Mason, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, all contributed significantly to ensuring the rights of free conscience as part of the founding document of the American Republic. Backus’s “Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty” (1773), Mason’s “Virginia Declaration of Rights” (1776), Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785), and Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom” (1786), all lay behind the provision against establishing a national religion and in favor of protecting the “free exercise” of religious belief and practice that was enshrined in the Bill of Rights of United States Constitution, adopted in 1791.

Madison’s affirmation of the existence of “natural rights” assuring “equal title to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience,” and Jefferson’s claim that the rights of conscience could never be submitted to the state on pain of self-betrayal, captured eloquently the basis for the expansive protection of religious freedom earlier codified in two state constitutions, those of Virginia and New York. The American founders often spoke of a substantial role for religion in civil and political life, both as a school of virtue and as a limitation on government, but they occasionally had different views of the matter. Washington asserted in his farewell address that religion produces "dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity." Jefferson sometimes agreed, but at other times could write: “Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality…[But if so,] whence arises the morality of the Atheists?...Their virtue must have some other foundation.”

To a limited degree, the French experience encouraged notions of free conscience. But the French concept of religious freedom developed in a radically different way from that of the United States. On the one hand, French Enlightenment representatives such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire all favored equal freedom of conscience, guaranteed in Article 10 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. On the other hand, the French Revolution, driven by a strong anticlerical impulse, led to the suppression and punishment of unpopular religious beliefs on the part of individuals. Catholic priests and nuns were executed and exiled. The 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy forcibly placed the Catholic Church under popular rule and required the election of bishops. Rousseau’s collectivist predispositions influenced Articles 3 and 6 of the Declaration, which gave priority to the “general will” and the “sovereignty of the nation” over individual conscience. Partly as a consequence, the French are to this day deeply suspicious of any public expression of religion or any suggestion that religion might contribute to civic virtue, the common good, or to limiting the power of government.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States, Europe, and many other parts of the world experienced challenges to their respective emerging concepts of religious freedom. Despite the guarantees of the First Amendment, America tolerated an informal establishment of Protestant Christianity. In state after state, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and non-mainline Protestants were excluded from public office or subject to hostile legislation such as the Blaine amendments and the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Protestant symbols and beliefs were favored in public schools and elsewhere. And yet, notwithstanding these developments, the promise of the First Amendment led the American Catholic Bishops in the late nineteenth century to praise the American system of religious freedom.

European countries in this period, like Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, were consumed with imperialist campaigns that, more often than not, rewarded religions offering blessings and encouragement to those campaigns, while disadvantaging religious groups that dared to challenge or resist them. It is true that the agents of imperialism, frequently promoted and accompanied by Christian missionaries, inadvertently carried with them a self-incriminating message, which in part proved to be their undoing by the middle of the twentieth century. Subjected peoples eventually called imperialists to account according to their own liberal standards, including their advertised commitments to the equal rights of conscience.

In some cases, however, Christian missionaries themselves condemned the imperialist pretensions of their own countries. Furthermore, according to exhaustive analysis by Robert Woodberry, Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, thereby creating the conditions that eventually made stable democracy more likely. These reform efforts often drew on the biblical and theological sources of the Christian tradition.

In general, the Catholic Church displayed a deep suspicion of religious freedom throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, with encyclicals such as as Mirari Vos, issued in 1832, and The Syllabus of Errors, issued in 1864. These and other official statements were in part a reaction to the religious indifferentism believed to be the inevitable result of institutionalized religious freedom, and in part a reaction to the severe anti-Catholicism of French, Italian, and German political reforms. In 1965, however, with the adoption of the papal encyclical Dignitatis Humanae, the church articulated its official endorsement of the civil right to religious freedom, grounding it in both faith and reason.

While some nations showed signs in the first half of the twentieth century of opening the door to greater religious freedom, the experience of religious people and institutions during World War II decidedly hastened this process. The relentless campaign by fascists in Germany and elsewhere to control, suppress, and in the case of the Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to exterminate altogether whole religious groups aroused among Christians a new sense of urgency on behalf of the cause of religious freedom. Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr staunchly defended the freedom of Christians and others against Hitler’s “totalitarian” onslaught. Likewise, Catholic theologians such as John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner, and Jacques Maritain persistently endeavored to protect religious freedom against the threat of state domination. States, for their part, saw a reduction from past anti-clericalist posturing, with the overall result of a friendlier climate for religious freedom following World War II.

Agitation of this kind by Christian and other religious leaders contributed significantly to the drafting and acceptance in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. Without such influence it is unlikely that human rights would have found favor among the drafters of the UN Charter. Furthermore, religious actors played a critical role in formulating the wording of Article 18 of the Declaration, which guarantees the right of everyone to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

After 1948 and up to the present, the Declaration and the subsequent international human rights instruments that it fostered created the universal context in which questions of the justification, interpretation, and application of the right to religious freedom are considered and debated. Of course, there remain deep differences of opinion among members of the Christian tradition over these matters, not to mention similar differences between and among members of other religious and philosophical points of view. That atheism cannot be tolerated, as John Courtney Murray advocates, or that, as Karl Rahner states, “the freedom and dignity of man” is only possible on the basis of an explicitly Christian ethos, are examples of abiding points of intense controversy within and outside the Christian community. Still, there seems widespread agreement among Christians and others that, whatever the differences on detail, all people of conscience have a profound stake in resisting the threat of collective domination, indelibly vivified during the twentieth century by the fascist and communist experiments.

By the early twenty-first century, however, the need to protect religious liberty seemed greater than ever. Christians and others began to witness the extraordinary reappearance of religious persecution on a global scale. As of 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, seventy-five percent of the world's population lived in nations in which religious freedom was highly or very highly restricted. Of all the religious groups who were victims of worldwide religious persecution as of 2010, Christians fared the worst.
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