Making Sense of Religious Liberty

Jackson Watts

Recently a friend of mine at the Helwys Society Forum, a site I also contribute to, called attention to Robert Louis Wilken’s book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I had somehow overlooked this title, though I had admired Wilken’s work for years. He is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. My first encounter with Wilken’s work was reading his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them over ten years ago. I was riveted by his description of early Christian practices and teaching and how Roman civil authorities perceived this strange new cult.

Then about five years ago while I was studying at Concordia Seminary, Wilken came to lecture on the church fathers. Even in his 80s, he was clear and compelling. I should also add that he was personally warm. What drew me to this more recent book was the subject: religious freedom. We are living at a time when increasingly in the West earlier assumptions about the value and necessity of liberty of conscience aren’t fully recognized, or only for a scarce few. Even now at least four cases that somehow relate to this subject are being argued, or have been recently argued, before the U.S. Supreme Court. This issue is not going away, and will only intensify in the coming years.

Though Wilken’s argument is more limited in scope, I think it complements the overall project of articulating an understanding of freedom of conscience that benefits all people, not just Christians. I want to briefly summarize Wilken’s argument, then make some observations that relate this to our present challenges in the area of religious freedom.

A Common Misconception Exposed

Among historians there has been a tendency to see religious freedom as the product of Enlightenment thought. The argument goes something like this: During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bloody religious wars were all too common. As the Enlightenment emerged, philosophers and other intellectuals saw the need for civil society to move past this needless and unfortunate bloodshed. In that unique context the need and case for religious liberty emerged. Increasingly people were free to practice their own religion, and form their own confessional communities without oppression or restriction by the state.

Here’s where Wilken (and other scholars) help debunk this misconception. He ably shows that the origins of religious freedom didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke, or the founding fathers. Instead, he shows that as early as Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), Christian theologians saw in Scripture a basis for religious freedom. As Wilken puts it, “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force (1). Or to put it in Tertullian’s words:

It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not  coercion that we should be led to religion (from Ad Scapula).

Wilken then develops his argument by showing how Lactantius and Gregory the Great joined Tertullian in providing a fairly early Christian perspective about religious liberty. Now I should add that this argument wasn’t fully developed, and certainly its application was not widespread. However, it refutes the argument that Enlightenment thinkers came up with the idea over a thousand years later.

Throughout the next several chapters Wilken walks the reader through Christian history, showing unique developments in which these early Christian ideas were received, appropriated, repackaged, and unfortunately, sometimes ignored. One interesting feature of the book is Wilken’s attention to Reformation era developments in several European countries, and how the case for religious liberty was made and often unevenly applied.

This latter point is really crucial. Jesus warns us about the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hinders people from seeing and receiving the truth. While living out of the faith inconsistently doesn’t logically discount the truthfulness of the faith, Scripture is clear that people see Jesus through seeing His people (John’s Gospel and first epistle really hammer home this point). So perhaps one reason why it is so easy for modern people to believe that religious liberty is not a cherished, ancient notion is because religious people themselves have at times been inconsistent in its application.

A Free Will Baptist Contribution

A book that deals with this subject couldn’t avoid the contribution of Thomas Helwys. Wilken devotes significant attention (for a relatively short book) to Helwys’ articulation of religious freedom. As an aside, my colleagues at the Helwys Society Forum have done this also, and we continue to marvel at the non-Free Will Baptists who are interested in Helwys who contact us about what we’re doing. But even Wilken sees Helwys as a major figure in this story. He quotes the famous line from Helwys that gets to the nub of the matter: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure” (180). For an early English General Baptist to be the one making this case is something for modern Free Will Baptist to be proud of. But we should just as quickly feel surprise, for another inconsistency in the story of religious liberty is the fact that Christian thinkers were not always quick to acknowledge the need for full freedom for other groups to practice their faith. Helwys throws the doors wide open to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew.

Tensions that Linger

I have alluded now a few times to the circuitous path it took for religious liberty to be widely observed. Part of this is due to some tensions that not only existed in earlier times and places, but ones that are still with us today. I’m going to highlight just two of the issues we still need to wrestle with and learn to articulate with clarity.

Coercion or Persuasion?

When we read about some earlier Christians discussing religious toleration (more limited) versus religious freedom (more expansive), one issue they were concerned with is how to persuade people to adopt the Christian faith—and their specific confession—while not coercing it. Again, if one accepts the premise that religious faith is a matter of the heart or individual conscience, then it cannot be coerced by some kind of external force. This external force could be threat of death, or something less severe like threat to civil well-being. Naturally believers who want to be evangelistic see persuasion as a legitimate Christian activity. The apostolic pattern certainly bears this out. But when does persuasion slip into coercion? When does an attractive argument become an inducement? Wilken’s book gives a few examples of this problem being worked out in a few circumstances, but we still have to think about it today.

It is possible to preach and evangelize in such a way that we give the impression that people should adopt Christianity if they intend to be loved or valued by us. Yet there is a distinction we have to make. We are called to love and respect the worth of all people, regardless of whether they come to Christ or not. There is indeed a special love, care, and commitment that believers share in the body of Christ that unbelievers are, by definition, excluded from. But I think we have to try to communicate this wisely so that we can be sure to seek to persuade people, while not coercing them. We may not wield a sword, but it’s possible that we would try to win people to Jesus using extraordinary means that win them to our means, or the external benefits of what we preach, and not to Christ himself.

There are other examples of this problem. In an earlier generation belonging to a church (and “espousing a religion”) helped build one’s social profile, especially if you were going to run for a local political office in certain communities. And though this trend has increasingly disappeared, it still points to the problem of believing without truly believing.

Private Belief or Public Practice?

Perhaps the part of Wilken’s book that I found most compelling is the problem of how we define religion. At times some Christians saw religion as merely, or at least predominantly, private belief. Obviously they did not see their own faith that way, but they were often tempted to limit it to private belief when it came to what would be allowed of others. Naturally you cannot compel someone to truly believe something in their heart. However, when it came to public expressions of that belief, those in power often differed on what would be accepted.

At the same time, many in favor of religious freedom for others recognized that this was inconsistent. Religion pertains not only to individual, private beliefs, but the expression of those beliefs, in practice, with other believers. This means there is always a public dimension of true faith. This was of course unsettling at times for civil leaders who thought that preserving order in their particular realm required conformity in matters of external religious observances. It’s like saying, “What you want to do and believe in the privacy of your own home is fine, but the moment you step outside, gather with other likeminded individuals, or stop supporting the existing religious order, then you’ve crossed the line.” Liberty ended at the threshold of one’s home.

This sounds all too similar to our contemporary situation in America. Christians are increasingly told that if they want to enter the marketplace they have to discard all of their religious and theological convictions, regardless of how sincerely held they are, how inherent they are to historic Christianity, or how supported they are by the First Amendment. If they try to bring their beliefs to bear on, say, how they create art, provide adoption services, or operate a college, they must conform to the established secular orthodoxies of the moment (I say “moment” because it is literally a moving target depending on which regulatory agency is writing memos that day, or if the Twitter mobs notice).

It’s all too easy to see how this current situation doesn’t just violate the plain sense of the First Amendment, but also the very ancient understandings of religion that some of the most powerful minds in history have articulated, such as St. Paul, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, John Wycliffe, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recent brethren like Robert P. George and Russell Moore. We can do better. Christians need to do their best to appeal to persons of good faith to show them why every citizen has a stake in freedom of religion and conscience. Wilken’s book and argument are just what the doctor ordered in helping to equip us for that enterprise.

 

3 thoughts on “Making Sense of Religious Liberty”

  1. Very good observations. I wish all Americans could understand these issues. Thanks for a well-written and thoughtful article.

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