Religious Freedom's Roots and Fruits, from Antiquity to the Present Day

By: Timothy Shah

October 31, 2017

Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries

Often in the crucible of their own firsthand experience of violent persecution, Christians of numerous epochs, cultural contexts, and theological persuasions have constructed radical conceptions and claims of human dignity, human freedom, and human rights. This history is of far more than academic interest. Christians across the centuries developed and deployed sometimes unprecedented notions of human dignity and human freedom with sometimes startling political consequences. Their arguments did not remain confined to the parchment—or vellum or papyrus—on which they were first written. Nor were they confined conceptually to the rarefied realms of theology and metaphysics. They often moved others, including those who did not share a Christian outlook, and sometimes helped to influence and bring about dramatic changes in law and policy.

When the co-emperors Licinius and Constantine, the latter famously a Christian but the other a pagan, issued the so-called “Edict of Milan” in 313 CE, they not only brought a formal end to state-sponsored Christian persecution but also declared that “Christians and all others should have the free and unrestricted right [liberam potestatem] to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.” This formal recognition of a universal right to religious freedom was not only startling. It was the clear political echo of arguments that early church fathers, particularly Tertullian (c. 160-240 CE) and Lactantius (c. 240-320 CE) but also others, had been making and developing for many decades, beginning in the middle of the second century.

One might say, in other words, that history saw a number of extraordinary declarations of conscientious resistance to “higher authorities” long before Luther, and even long before the legal revolution and explosion of rights language in the high Middle Ages. In 197 CE, in a treatise addressed directly to the magistrates of Rome that burns with audacity and defiance, Tertullian wrote that he and other Christians cannot be coerced into sacrificing to pagan gods because “we stand immovable in loyalty to our conscience” [pro fide conscientiae nostrae], and in the same treatise he effectively invented (or discovered) the principle of religious freedom and was, in fact, the first person in human history to use the very phrase “religious liberty” [libertas religionis]. And in 212 CE, he wrote to a Roman proconsul these astonishing words: “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions…”

In our own day, amidst increasingly influential efforts to place a pretty Christian halo over ugly white nationalism across the Western world, it is crucial to note that this ancient principle—a tight conjunction of freedom of conscience and ecclesial independence—was deployed against not only pagan persecutions but also Christian despotism and domineering projects to create a united “Christian empire.” Fiercely resisting the domination of the Emperor Justinian over church affairs in the mid-sixth century, Facundus of Hermiane (d. 570) thundered, “It is useless to decide judgment against someone or pay lip service to any decision only because a higher authority orders it, because the very word decision has no meaning unless one really decides.” These declarations had even deeper roots in the words of Jesus that starkly differentiated the “things of God” from the “things of Caesar” and the words of Genesis that all human beings equally bear the image and likeness of God, words that suggest that human freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom and a mark of humanity’s own inherent god-like dignity.

The remarkable antiquity of Christian argument for religious freedom is of enormous significance for current debates about the provenance and validity of “religious freedom” as a principle. Some scholars such as Talal Asad and Elizabeth Hurd have insisted in effect that religious freedom is a sectarian concept, with an exclusive and narrow association with Protestantism and with the conditions of modernity. This implies that religious freedom is, at best, appropriate only for modern Protestant believers and homogeneously Protestant societies. The reality is that religious freedom, along with closely associated notions of human dignity, has a much wider and deeper provenance. Furthermore, Christian writers such as Tertullian and Lactantius—and many other thinkers treated in our study, such as Bartholome de las Casas and Roger Williams—typically formulated their articulations and defenses of freedom of religion and conscience in terms of what we would today call “public reason.” That is, because of their particular understanding of human nature, reason, and natural law, it is not just that they fully believed that religious freedom as they formulated it was something to which non-Christians as much as Christians were equally entitled. It is also that they expected that religious freedom was, in principle, something that non-Christians would be capable of understanding and endorsing from their own distinct points of view.

That religious freedom found such powerful expression, and gained such real footholds, in so many diverse historical and cultural contexts surely provides some hope for our world today. Ours is a time when some three-quarters of the world’s people live in countries where there are severe restrictions on freedom of religion and conscience, with Western countries, too, seeing extremisms of both the right and left attacking freedom of conscience with growing audacity. The task of formulating a convincing case for religious freedom is, therefore, one of serious moral and human urgency and not mere academic interest. The long and complex history of Christianity and freedom, which began long before Luther and continues long after him, suggests that the ideas of religious liberty and liberty of conscience enjoy wider and deeper roots in human experience and reflection than many of us assume. That alone is reason to hope that the world’s vibrant cultural and religious diversity need not be a barrier to efforts to make these ideas come alive and find fresh expression and respect in every part of the globe, including our own.

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