From Tertullian, a North African Christian writer of the early third century, to the Reformation, there is a significant Christian tradition that affirms religious freedom.

The origin story of religious liberty commonly cited in college courses and museums, informed by proponents of the so-called Whig view of history, goes something like this. In the West, individuals were expected to conform to the religious beliefs of their larger social and political communities. As evidenced in examples like the Inquisition of the Catholic Church, non-conformists risked persecution and even death. It was only the European exhaustion over the many violent wars of the Reformation era, and the subsequent secular rationalism of the Enlightenment, that led to a political solution that honored individual liberty in matters of religion.

This story, however, is not only superficial and inadequate, but backward. Religious historian Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God documents how the origins of religious freedom aren’t secular, but decidedly Christian.

Tertullian, a North African Christian writer of the early third century, was the first to argue that because religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart, it cannot be coerced by external forces. The Church Father writes:

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.

Elsewhere he writes:

Let one man worship God, another Jupiter; let one lift suppliant hands to the heavens, another to the altar of Fides; let one—if you choose to take this view of it—count in prayer the clouds, and another the ceiling panels; let one consecrate his own life to his God, and another that of a goat. For see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it. Not even a human being would care to have unwilling homage rendered him.

Tertullian is the first person in Western history to use the phrase “freedom of religion.” However, freedom of conscience has an even more ancient pedigree. The North African Tertullian draws upon various biblical evidence to support his argument, claiming that Jesus’s teaching that one should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s communicates a separation of powers between the state and the church. The Apostle Paul, in turn, spoke of the Christian conscience as sometimes the judge of right action. In the Book of Daniel, the eponymous protagonist, as well as his friends Shadrach, Mescach, and Abednego, all reject Babylonian attempts to coerce them into pagan worship.

From Tertullian to the Reformation, there is a significant Christian tradition that affirms religious freedom. Fourth-century Christian writer Lactantius argues that “religion cannot be imposed by force.” The fourth-century “protocols of Milan,” issued by the Roman emperor Constantine, granted Romans “freedom” to “all men to follow whatever religion each wishes.” Alcuin, an advisor to Charlemagne, tells the emperor that “faith arises from the will, not from compulsion… you can persuade a man to believe, but you cannot force him.” This counsel was necessary because Frankish kings were forcing the conversions of various pagan tribal groups in central Europe at the edge of a sword.

Ancient Christian appeals to religious freedom and conscience must be placed alongside this tradition of limiting free religious practice. Various Roman and Byzantine emperors enforced a particular brand of Christianity and persecuted those deemed heretics. Even the great bishop-theologian Augustine welcomed state actions against the popular North African Donatist movement. The state also restricted the public worship of Jews across the empire, though some clerics, including Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), censured the forced conversion of Jewish persons to Christianity. Medieval popes Callistus II and Innocent III likewise declared that Jews should “suffer no prejudice,” and that no violence be done against them. Similar arguments were offered by the Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas, who railed against Spanish soldiers and clergy who forcibly converted Amerindians to Catholicism.

This tension reached a climax during the Reformation and post-Reformation era. Wilken includes chapters on Lutheran Germany, Calvinist and Zwinglian Switzerland, and on Catholic-Protestant battles in France, the Netherlands, and England. Readers may be surprised to learn how often it was not just Protestants but also Catholics who turned to liberty in defense of their religious beliefs. Nuns in Germany, clergyman in Switzerland, Benedictine abbots in France, and papist lawyers in England all appealed to their consciences in the face of Protestant persecution. Indeed, while Reformation history is full of Catholic oppression of Protestants, it is equally full of Protestants oppressing, persecuting, and even forbidding Catholic worship.

It is ultimately the Englishmen—Roger Williams, John Owen, William Penn, and John Locke—to whom America and the West are indebted for their conception of religious freedom. Williams argued that liberty of conscience applied to all men equally, including dissenting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even the hated Catholics. He also “severed the link between the two tables of the law,” meaning that he rejected any role for the state in the affairs of the church and vice versa. Owen, in turn, interpreted Tertullian’s earlier cited argument to mean that “liberty of conscience is a natural right” rather than one created and protected by the state. Penn, meanwhile, argued that this liberty of conscience necessarily extended to public worship. Locke, finally, incorporated some of these elements, but went even further by arguing that religious communities are fundamentally voluntary societies composed of individuals possessing “free and spontaneous” rights.

This English and Lockean interpretation defined America’s idea of religious freedom, one that seems increasingly inadequate in a society that is not only less religious, but aggressively anti-religious. Is conscience sufficient grounds to protect a Christian baker who refuses to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding? Is conscience sufficient to protect a Christian nurse or doctor who is unwilling to cooperate in certain medical procedures like abortion and euthanasia? Is conscience sufficient to protect Christian adoption agencies, medical institutions, and schools? Is conscience sufficient to protect churches that baptize their infants and catechize small children, actions that one might argue violate the “voluntary” nature of religious practice?

In truth, religion always extends beyond personal beliefs and corporate worship. It bleeds into the public square, informing the decisions of its citizens. Moreover, contra Locke, many religious communities do not view themselves as collections of autonomous individuals, but as corporate bodies that extend across society and across generations. There is an ancient, robust natural law tradition supporting this idea, one that looks to other societies, like the family and even the state, as examples of communities that also aren’t entirely voluntary. One does not choose his or her parents. Nor does one choose his or her nation. These things are givens. They may in time be rejected by individuals, though even then such bonds are impossible to fully shake off. Religion, like the family, remains a vinculum societatis, a unifying bond of society.

This is not to say that Wilken’s historical study of the development of religious liberty is inadequate. Like all of his works, Liberty in the Things of God adroitly balances sophisticated scholarly analysis with accessible prose and a compelling narrative. Indeed, Wilken in the course of his research discovered that Thomas Jefferson was familiar with Tertullian’s writings on religious liberty. Jefferson’s thought (as well as that of fellow Virginians James Madison and George Mason), encapsulated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, serves as another foundation for America’s understanding of religious freedom. This means that one can trace a line (albeit a faded, circuitous one) from Tertullian all the way to the First Amendment.

Yet perhaps to better protect religion’s role in the public square, it’s necessary to return to the thought of other pre-Enlightenment sources—those less tainted by the contradictions and inadequacies of liberalism. Only then can America develop an understanding of true religious liberty.

Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (June 2019).

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Desembarco de los puritanos en América” (1883) by Antonio Gisbert (1834-1901), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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