Religious Freedom and Christianity: An Overview

Author: David Little

Religious freedom as currently understood is the condition in which individuals or groups are permitted without restriction to assent to and, within limits, to express and act upon religious conviction and identity in civil and political life free of coercive interference or penalties imposed by outsiders, including the state. Over the centuries, the attitudes and behavior of Christians aimed at promoting this understanding have been, in a word, deeply ambivalent.

The pervasive ambivalence over the desirability of religious freedom is amply, if variously, evident in the basic textual sources collected and discussed in this Sourcebook on Christianity and Religious Freedom, a product of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. These sources, whether Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, or Modern, should help correct two conflicting and equally inaccurate convictions. One is strong skepticism that Christianity contributed anything constructive to the rise of religious freedom. The other is the assumption that Christian beliefs and communities invariably favor religious freedom.

In reality, Christians have always struggled to reconcile two competing ideals, individual religious freedom, and the religious uniformity thought to be necessary to the common good. On the one hand, Christians have long considered themselves “called” or “born anew” into a community separate from government and from ethnic and national ties, bound together afresh as “new beings” by the “gifts of the spirit.” Subject to a “kingship not of this world,” members are taken to be free to join this new community of their own accord and therein to believe and act, individually and collectively, independent of conventional forms of political and social control.

At the same time, Christians have often favored the idea that civic order, the common good, and salvation itself depend on religious uniformity, something that may require coercive enforcement by the temporal government. Consequently, they are called upon to clarify the relations between what Jesus called the “things that are God’s” and the “things that are Caesar’s.” If, according to Paul, Christians are required to submit to earthly governments “for the sake of conscience,” how is obedience to government to be made consistent with obedience to God, especially where the two forms of obedience diverge? How, and under what conditions, is the authority of Caesar to be employed in the service of God? The history of Christianity, still continuing, consists of a wide variety of quite different and often conflicting answers to these basic questions.

The origins of this ambivalence lie deep in the source materials Christians take to be sacred, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament. On the one hand, deviation from authorized belief and practice was a civil crime in ancient Israel, punishable by death. That was the foundation of the original “covenant” between God and his people, summarized by the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. The first four commandments pertaining to relations with the divine, and the second six to relations with fellow human beings, were all to be enforced by the civil authority. Strict religious uniformity around a “national religion” was indispensable to the temporal survival and prosperity of ancient Israel. Various Christians in all four periods have enthusiastically reaffirmed one version or another of this central conviction.

On the other hand, many Christians over the centuries have also embraced certain Old Testament “prophetic” teaching that appeared to them to move in a quite different direction. The book of Jeremiah speaks of a “new covenant” between God and his people, one not like the first which consists of externally enforceable laws, but something radically different, now placed “within them” and written “upon their hearts.” For Christians, this anticipated event is inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, instituting, as Paul says, “a new covenant, not in a written code, but in the Spirit; for the written code kills but the Spirit gives life.” Here is the basis for the novel community, mentioned above, set apart from the institutions of coercive enforcement and ideally directed by the inward consent and commitment of the members newly bound together by “the spirit” in the “body of Christ.”

It is, of course, this second emphasis that in general establishes the importance of religious freedom in Christian thinking. It typically sits uneasily with a belief in religious uniformity that is coerced. There are at least four important themes, often applied in combination, that Christians have invoked as a basis for grounding and developing a doctrine of religious freedom.

The first is a belief in the differentiation of religious and political authority, sometimes referred to as the “separation of church and state.” A distinction between what is called the “law of the spirit” and the “law of the sword” is anticipated by certain Fathers, or leading theologians, of the early church, and expressed in the legendary conflicts between papacy and throne in the Medieval period, as well as in the jurisdictional disputes between church and state before, during, and after the Protestant Reformation. Among other things, this distinction had the effect of limiting the powers of the secular state, thereby creating the possibility of social and civic pluralism, i.e., a society that includes substantial non-governmental enterprises and institutions, both secular and religious. But the belief did not come to approximate its modern form until the seventeenth century at the hands of radical Protestant reformers in Holland, England, and Colonial America.

A second and related appeal is to the idea of conscience and its eventual connection to a belief in natural rights. Paul’s declaration that “Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5) and his rhetorical question, “[W]hy should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (I Corinthians 10:29, English Standard Version), along with his elaborations in several of his letters on the place of conscience in the Christian life, became the basis for the repeated defense of religious freedom as freedom of conscience. Thomas Aquinas taught that everyone has a duty to believe and act in accord with one’s own conscience. Medieval canonists taught that “no one ought to act against his own conscience.”* At the same time, Aquinas and the canonists held that an erring conscience, even when sincere, could lead one into grave sin when not fully formed and ordered to the truth. That teaching led Aquinas and most canonists to conclude that apostates and heretics ought to be punished by civil authorities. Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin came to hold a similarly restrictive view. It was up to sixteenth century Anabaptists and other radical Christians to defend a more expansive and inclusive interpretation of the right to freedom of conscience.

Whatever its classical and medieval antecedents, however, the conviction that freedom of conscience is a “natural right”—namely, a civilly enforceable subjective entitlement belonging equally to everyone, regardless of creed—does not find expanded and codified expression until the seventeenth century in the statements of liberal Puritans like the Levellers in England and Roger Williams in Rhode Island. Nevertheless, the ingredients of such a conviction go back at least to 212 CE and the ringing words of Tertullian: “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.”**

A third appeal is to the “dignity of the human person.” This appeal derives from both the idea that humans are created in the “image of God,” which is understood to be imprinted upon human beings at creation (based on the first chapter of Genesis), as well as from the idea that humans are inherently truth-seeking creatures. References to the “image of God” appear throughout the Christian tradition, though they are particularly prominent among Catholic theologians and philosophers, and in the modern official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church. Both emphasize this understanding of dignity as a basis for freedom and the human capacities of reason and will to seek and discover truth and knowledge of God. Indeed, a recent message of Pope Benedict XVI pointedly connects human dignity and religious freedom by declaring that “[r]espect for essential elements of human dignity, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom, is a condition for the moral legitimacy of every social and legal norm.”***

The example and teachings of Jesus constitute a final appeal in favor of religious freedom. Jesus’ use of persuasion rather than coercion, his renunciation of armed protection, and his acceptance of death over retaliation established an enduring ideal of charitable communication and interaction between Christians and non-Christians. For example, some followers of Jesus emphasized the noncoercive character of Christian communication as against contrary interpretations. They believed that certain New Testament texts—such as the parable recommending that both “wheat and weeds” (believers and non-believers) be allowed to “both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30)—authorized religious tolerance. The eternal judgment of Christ and the separation of believers from non-believers would occur during "the harvest," i.e., in the next world. In the meantime, religious tolerance secures worldly interests by preventing civil disorder and also advances spiritual goods by ensuring that the church can freely preach its message and individuals can freely come to authentic faith. Eventually, some Christians came to believe that such teachings required equal freedom in the civil sphere, regardless of creed.

*Brian Tierney, “Religious Rights: An Historical Perspective" in John Witte and Johan D. Van der Vyver, eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective Vol. 1, Religious Perspectives (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1996), p. 25.
**See the text from Tertullian, Ad Scapulam.
***“Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace,” Message of His Holiness, 
Pope Benedict XVI, for the Celebration of the
 World Day of Peace, 1 January 2011.


This Sourcebook on Christianity and Religious Freedom is a product of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The RFP is made possible through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation. The Sourcebook was prepared under the direction of Timothy Samuel Shah, the RFP’s associate director and scholar in residence. Those who provided assistance in its preparation include Thomas Farr, the RFP’s director; Kyle Vander Meulen, the RFP’s senior project associate; Karen Rupprecht, RFP research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University; Amy Vander Vliet, Berkley Center web editor and database manager; Daniel Philpott, RFP associate scholar; Robert Wilken, University of Virginia (emeritus); David Lantigua, Catholic University of America; Jose Casanova, RFP associate scholar and Berkley Center senior fellow; and Jean Elshtain, RFP associate scholar.

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