Is Religious Freedom an Issue Today (or not)?

Is Religious Freedom an Issue Today (or not)? January 8, 2020

One of my favorite authors is Robert Louis Wilken. The first book of his I read is called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and it was mesmerizing combination of clarity, ideas and biography. Then out came The First Thousand Years, a global study of early Christianity. It was so good.

Now we have a slender volume called Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. There are probably some whack jobs who think this book is loaded for bear in our political situation, but it’s nothing less than an even-handed, balanced, evidence-based — and totally accessible — study of how the Christian faith shaped the very sense of religious freedom in our world. It’s an easy read, it’s a good read, and it’s worth your time. (#ad)

Six major conclusions:

Liberty of conscience means freedom of religion for all. Not just for Catholics, not just for Protestants, not just for Republicans, not just for Democrats, and not just for Christians. For all means for all.

A decisive moment occurs in the history of the church when wielding Constantine’s sword: suddenly during and after the Reformation there are “two different religions” in the same city, such as Paris. This created the opportunity and the battle to work out what it meant to be Christian and to differ, and to explore if a particular faith was required to establish national unity.

Religious freedom, which in Christianity sorts out from Jesus’ “whose image is on your coin?” question and answer to Tertullian’s earliest attempt to say Christians ought to be able to worship the God they want to worship and that faith can’t be coerced if it is genuine faith … that is, religious freedom was not just about individuals but about communities from the very beginning of Christian thinking. But this takes firm shape especially after the Reformation. If for the Protestants, then for the Anabaptists and Quakers and all sorts.

A major theme develops under the idea of two kingdoms: the government’s job was not to establish religion. “Within society there must be a sphere in which men can exercise their conscience without the intrusion of government.”

Over time church became not one’s birthplace but one’s choice. Until the Reformation, and then plenty after that too, one was born into the church but the Reformation and its aftermath generated church as choice.

As a consequence, churches came to be understood as voluntary associations composed of believers who held the same “faith.” Inevitably they began to be called by names that reflected their unique identity: Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Church of England, and the like. If the national Church is a voluntary society like other churches, only those who choose to belong are bound by its discipline.

It was not church wars that gave rise to national and secular theories of toleration but Christian thinking about Christians that led to toleration as a public doctrine. Religion, Tertullian argued, can’t be imposed or coerced. There can be, Wilken concludes, “no justice in society without liberty in the things of God.”

For all.


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