Berkley Forum

Christianity and Freedom: Peril and Promise

Responding to Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries

Christianity today faces a global crisis of persecution, as believers in many places around the world suffer discrimination, harassment, marginalization, and violence—in more countries and under more diverse settings than any other faith group. This finding is documented by the Pew Research Center and corroborated by other diverse sources. According to demographer Todd Johnson, one-fifth of all Christians in the world, around 500 million, live in states where they are likely to face persecution.

Why does this matter? It matters because Christianity, with all of its human frailties, carries in its DNA a transcendent conception of human dignity and equality conducive to free institutions and flourishing societies. That is the singular finding that emerged from our Christianity and Freedom project. By commissioning both historical investigations and contemporary field research, we were able to trace the impact of the Christian DNA across time and around the contemporary globe.    

Because the experiences of Christian minorities today mirror those of the early persecuted church, the contemporary situation offers a vast global laboratory to probe how Christian communities are replicating and expanding earlier innovations. Careful case studies and international surveys demonstrate the outsized role of Christian communities in defending religious freedom and human rights, empowering the marginalized, fighting injustices, promoting economic development, and providing education, healthcare, and social services. Pledging fealty to an authority higher than the state, Christians of every denomination struggle to carve spaces for autonomous civil society that underpin democratic governance. Thus votaries of liberty and democracy, whether religious or not, have a stake in the fate of this global religious community.

What deserves elaboration are the conditions under which this role most vigorously plays out. And one of the crucial factors is independence (or differentiation) from political authority, which characterizes most Christian communities today, if not predominately in the past.

In light of the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which ruptured the idea of a unified Christendom, the Catholic case is enormously instructive. Though never as comprehensive as critics allege, the entanglement of the Catholic Church with temporal authority in the past compromised its independence and muted its freedom gene. As Daniel Philpott has recounted, however, once the Church renounced enforcing the faith with state power—in its Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom”—it became the engine of the last wave of democratization on earth. But it became more than this. In one of the surprises of our age, Catholic societies now cultivate the lowest restrictions on religious freedom in the world. As documented by the Pew Research Center, Catholic-majority nations registered the lowest restrictions on religious freedom of any faith tradition. Indeed, countries where Catholics are a majority scored two times lower in both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion than countries where Catholics are a minority, including the United States.

Christianity is truest to itself—or freest to be true to itself—when it avoids entanglement with temporal power, when it resists the temptation to deploy the sword of the state to buttress its social status or to restrict religious competitors. Thus while persecution represents a huge threat to the faith in many parts of the world, cooptation is a growing danger, something we can now see more clearly than when we produced the Christianity and Freedom volumes.

Threats from aggressive secularism in the West, along with fears of being overwhelmed by culturally alien forces or refugees, have led some Christian leaders and communities to embrace authoritarian figures or demagogues who promise to protect their rights and culture. One of Vladimir Putin’s first acts in consolidating his authoritarian power in Russia, for example, was to replace an enlightened religious liberty law with one that hampered minority faiths, which he promoted under the guise of preserving the Russian Orthodox heritage. Some Orthodox leaders acceded to this devil’s bargain, which muted their voices for religious freedom and independent civil society. In contrast, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who operates under restrictions of an increasingly authoritarian Turkish state, is a more certain trumpet for Christian freedom and dignity.

Virulent new strains of ethno-nationalism and nativism are antithetical to the universal Christian conception of all people as made in the image and likeness of God and thus endowed with surpassing equal worth and dignity. The lesson is that Christians must maintain their independence, not only from political authority, but also from identification with any single party, tribe, leader, or ideology. Only this independence will ensure that the Christian DNA plays its leavening role in a fraught and hurting world. 

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