Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians?

Religious LibertyOf course it is.

During the 2016 primary season I criticized several GOP presidential candidates GOP presidential candidates for talking about religious liberty as if it were something that only applied to their own kind–evangelical Christians.

I am happy to see that Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has gone on record defending religious liberty for all Americans. Check out his piece “Is Religious Freedom For Non-Christians Too?

Two observations/questions:

First, what does it say about American Christianity, or perhaps more specifically American evangelicalism, when a leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the country has to remind people that religious liberty applies to non-Christians.

Second, Moore writes:

One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God. At issue is whether or not the civil state has the power to zone mosques or Islamic cemeteries or synagogues or houses of worship of whatever kind out of existence because of what those groups believe. When someone makes such a claim, that person is not standing up for Jesus and his gospel, but standing against them. To empower the state to command or to forbid worship is not fidelity to the Bible.

When he refers to religious liberty as a “natural and inalienable right granted by God” it sounds less like a theological/biblical statement and more like a recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy in the Declaration of Independence.  Is religious liberty a “natural and inalienable right granted by God” because Jefferson said so?

Does the Bible teach the kind of Jeffersonian liberty that Moore is talking about here? Can someone point me to a Biblical defense of religious liberty?  (I am not trying to be cynical here–I am really interested in learning more about this.  I am sure that there is a lot written on this topic–what is the best stuff?).

Religious liberty, it seems, is a relatively new idea in Western Civilization.  For example, what should we make of all the so-called Christian nations throughout history that did not separate church and state or promote the religious liberty of their people?  Did these states fail to conform to biblical ideas about religious liberty?

While there are strong arguments to be made for religious liberty based on Enlightenment ideals, natural law or reason, or even Catholic social teaching about the dignity of all human beings, I am interested in learning more about those who have made a robust theological and biblical defense of this belief and how such a defense relates to the fact that there were moments in Christian history when the church thrived in cultures where there was little or no religious liberty.

Just curious.

9 thoughts on “Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians?

  1. In a series of essays (many of which overlap), Marian Hillar traces what he argues is the most sustained strand of religious liberty in Western Civ. from Michael Servetus, to Sebastian Castellio, to Laelius and Faustus Socini, to the Polish Brethren, to John Locke and Pierre Bayle, to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

    From the perspective of Anglo-American history (as you and your readers know), nobody argued more passionately and biblically (e.g., parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-29)) for the cause of religious liberty than Roger Williams. As he stated in his famous “Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for the Cause of Conscience,” “Sixthly. It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries: and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God.” I recommend James P. Byrd’s book, “The Challenges of Roger Williams.”


  2. From the perspective of a Catholic and Catholicism, Vatican II’s pronouncement on religious freedom, DIGNITARIES HUMANE (found here:, is aligned with clear theological and historical precedent, contrary to claims otherwise. The Church has always opposed FORCED coercion of religious beliefs for those who aren’t baptized (forced coercion is not the same as evangelization); HOWEVER, the Church argues it retains the right to address baptized Catholics (heretics, apostates, and the like).

    If the footnotes are used as a frame of reference, the theology extends back as far as such individuals as Lactantius , Saint Ambrose of Milan, and his pupil Saint Augustine, and includes Church councils like the Fourth Council of Toledo.

    The context within which all of this is stated, formally in DIGNITARIES HUMANE, is, “It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will.(8) This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church.(7) The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.” In other words, the Church has ALWAYS proclaimed it cannot force others to “embrace the Christian faith” because, as I believe the first poster, CFred mentioned, the Catholic / Christian acknowledgment of free will.

    In the time leading up to the founding of the United States, we see evidence of this affirmation coming from the Catholic Church formally. Francisco Suarez’s Defensio Fidei Catholicae (1613) was commissioned by Pope Paul V and directed at James I of England. It maintained the State cannot coerce religion, insisting the State could only punish the citizenry with respect to religion “in so far as those crimes are contrary to political ends, public peace, and human justice; but coercion with respect to those deeds which are opposed to religion and to the salvation of the soul is essentially a function of spiritual power” – i.e., the Church. But again, the Church is only talking about its authority to “coerce” those who have been baptized (meaning, addressing heretics and apostates), as well as the right to “coerce” the unbaptized through evangelization.

    Whether this all would meet Jefferson’s definition of religious freedom is a different matter. Yet, the vigorous and centuries-old theological position of the Catholic Church not to force someone to Christianity seems in step with his litmus test. I suspect Jefferson would be uncomfortable with notions of “heresy” and “apostasy,” but then again maybe not. Nor for that matter would Jefferson be at odds with the Church’s concept of “coercion” via evangelization because, as Peter Onuf noted in the C-Span book discussion, Jefferson distributed his Bible.


  3. Dr. Fea, is your premise essentially fundamentalist, a hermeneutic I don’t believe you yourself even subscribe to? Most all Christians allow that moral reasoning–the natural law–is assumed as the baseline of Christian thought, truths that all men know before they ever hear of the Bible.

    To yr point:

    I’d posit that “freedom of conscience” is a Protestant, not an “Enlightenment” concept, initiated by Martin Luther, who rejected the Catholic Church’s claimed “magisterial” authority to define and interpret Scripture.

    The early Reformers thought they would “reform” Rome’s theological errors, but as the Protestant sects proliferated exponentially, freedom of conscience simply became a practical necessity if Christians [Protestants] were ever to stop killing each other.

    And as John Locke elegantly pointed out, killing each other over doctrine was hardly Jesusian, nor could a Christian government ever save a single soul.

    Protestantism atomized Christianity into dozens and then 100s of sects, and that was Da Bomb, bro.


    If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.


  4. I agree. Freedom of conscience is an Enlightenment concept. I’m not convinced there is a legitimate theological or biblical argument to be made, certainly not one from the spurious notion of “free will.”


  5. Thanks for this CFred. I think you are getting at the crux of my question in point #1. It seems as if you are saying that the biblical argument for religious liberty rests on a belief in human free will. Does this mean that the Christian view of religious liberty is merely inferred by the doctrine of free-will, a doctrine that is much debated in Christian theology? What about theological systems, such as Calvinism, that downplay free will?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Matt. Very familiar with this letter. But Washington does not seem to be making a theological or biblical argument for religious freedom here.


  7. Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport

    George Washington
    August 21, 1790


    While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

    The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

    If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

    The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

    It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

    It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

    May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

    May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

    G. Washington


  8. You’ve raised a very good question here, but it is answerable, I think.

    1) The Bible supports religious freedom (we know by inference), based on the fact of human free will. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to sin (to abandon their devotion to the one true God) if they so chose, and thus they did. God is patient with sinners (Rom 2:4; 9:22) He could interfere with human conscience in spectacular ways. He does not do this. What God limits himself in, no human government should take upon itself. (BTW, God gives government the sword, to execute justice upon evil, and gives the king the mandate to treat the poor with equity etc. God himself opposes evil, and provides for those in need, so there is precedent for saying the government does what God does, only on a smaller scale, and at His behest. The government cannot do what God will not do–coerce the consciences of mankind.)
    2. We see that State Churches are a creation of historical circumstance. The collapse of Rome left the Church as the only single unifying entity of what had been the Roman Empire. It was a mistake, but an understandable one, as the Church took over the sanctioning (the accreditation, to use academic language) of secular authorities. Thus a situation arose where the state and the church were wedded, and the church gave the state its authenticity. Then came the Reformation. There was more than one church, and the state no longer looked to the Church for sanction. But long habit had created a situation where people could not imagine religious pluralism–how could there be more than one church in all of England; or Germany; or. . . or. . .or. . . The system of state churches developed (but soon after, so did the easy availability of the printed word. Economic improvements led to people moving around more too. Religious pluralism–in the sense of multiple “denominations” of Christians was the result, and the mess had to be sorted out somehow.
    3. The Enlightenment was a secular movement and advocated religious liberty almost as a byproduct of its epistemology. This was in line with trends happening in Church-State relations at the time, however (the 1689 Act of Toleration, for example). Thus two forces–one admittedly completely secular–moved the western world toward an understanding of Church and State that was actually a recovery of a biblical principle–not something new and completely different.
    4. The move toward total religious freedom for all religions was there theoretically from the early 1600s (Thomas Helwys), but became a practical reality/necessity only after the rise of the modern missions movement and increased transportation and immigration around the world.


Comments are closed.