Does Religious Liberty Have Christian Roots?

WilkenRobert Wilken‘s new book Liberty in Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom makes the case that religious liberty has Christian roots that date back to the second century.  Tal Howard reviews Wilken’s new book at The Anxious Bench blog.

Here is a taste:

Wilken seeks to reorient our understanding of the history of religious freedom. Today, many educated people believe that once upon a time history teemed with inquisitions, witch trials, and religious wars until, lo, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment arrived, paving the way for the American and French Revolutions and with them the constitutional protection of religious liberty. In this narrative, religious freedom is a relatively recent and secular achievement.

But the actual origins of religious freedom are far more complex and specifically indebted to Christian theology, according to Wilken. His argument proceeds in four stages.

First, the spread of Christianity in the classical world redefined religious belief. In the Roman Empire, religious devotion was tethered to the state and manifested itself in outward acts of piety. It was not an inward matter of conviction and conscience. Christians were thus sometimes charged with “atheism” and persecuted for failing to perform the customary rituals. Roman harassment inspired Tertullian and other early Christians writers, notably Lactantius and Origen of Alexandria, to insist that true religion resided in “conscience” apart from Caesar’s domain. Tertullian in fact first coined the term “religious freedom” (libertas religionis) and saw it as a “human right” (humanum ius). “Religion cannot be imposed by force,” echoed Lactantius against his Roman critics.

Read the entire review here.

2 thoughts on “Does Religious Liberty Have Christian Roots?

  1. Apparently toleration spreads in Europe as kings are constrained by parliaments and the desire for domestic tranquility (following Great Britain’s example)

    “… Europe, Russia excepted, has caught the spirit; and all will attain representative government, more or less perfect. this is now well understood to be a necessary check on kings, whom they will probably think it more prudent to chain and tame, than to exterminate. to attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow, & years of desolation pass over, yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation. for what inheritance, so valuable, can man leave to his posterity? … [Spain] will settle down in a temperate representative government, with an Executive properly subordinated to that. Portugal, Italy, Prussia, Germany, Greece will follow suit. you and I shall look down from another world on these glorious atchievements to man, which will add to the joys even of heaven.”


  2. Not having read the book I’m not sure how Wilken defines “religious liberty.” For instance, I wonder if he explores the 16th century laws in Poland establishing official religious tolerance — not born of any progressive politics but simply, in a country then brimming with Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims, the need to maintain public order. But per the review, there’s another omission, that of the Ottoman Empire with its millet system that officially recognized (some) other faiths and provided a degree of self-governance for those communities. In this way Christianity (in Catholic and Protestant forms), Judaism and others were officially tolerated and protected legally, economically and socially within an official religious hierarchy. To be sure, this system began to break down over the 19th century as the empire grappled with the rise of both nationalism and Islamic extremism, but at the height of its power in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was, in relative terms — particularly when compared to the religious violence endemic in Christian Europe in those centuries — not a bad place to live for non-Muslims. As late as the mid-18th century, to make that point, Voltaire had his Candide character, disgusted after traveling Europe looking for a place to settle, decide to live in the Ottoman lands.


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