Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Robert Louis Wilken recently posted this web exclusive on First Things about the history of religious freedom. Wilken notes the landmark decisions in the United States that have shaped the issue and then points out how Christianity has wrongly been branded intolerant and an enemy of religious freedom:
More recently, in a March op-ed in the Washington Post, historian and political commentator Robert Kagan wrote: “Only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual’s body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of state and church.” Kagan reflects the conventional view that religious freedom was the accomplishment of the Enlightenment. Like others, he assumes that by the end of the seventeenth century the fanaticism of religious believers gave way to the cool reason and skepticism of philosophers, and this in turn led to ideas about toleration and religious freedom.
What is missing in these accounts is the contribution of Christianity. Many believe that Christianity is inescapably intolerant, and that only with the decline of religious faith in western society did liberty of conscience take root. But a more careful examination of the historical record shows that Christian thinkers provided the intellectual framework that made possible the rise of religious freedom.
Already in the ancient world, Christian writers argued (against their Roman persecutors) that religion could not be coerced. Religious belief by its very nature must be free. They also adapted and modified the understanding of conscience received from ancient philosophers, who understood conscience as a moral knowledge of one’s past actions. Christian thinkers, influenced by the use of the term “conscience” in the writings of the apostle Paul, began to see conscience not simply as knowledge of one’s past actions, but as a pedagogue of future action. To take one example: In the sixteenth century, when Protestant magistrates forced monks and sisters to abandon monastic life to embrace the teachings of the reformers, the abbess of a Franciscan community of sisters in Nuremberg told the city council: We hope that you will not apply pressure “in matters that concern conscience” and “force us to act against our wills to confess what the authorities want us to say.”
Of equal importance in the development of liberty of conscience were the writings of Christians who developed the view that civil authority and religious belief must be kept separate. They appealed to the medieval distinction of two powers—one religious, the other political (pope and emperor)—what is sometimes called the two swords. Ultimately, the distinction of realms goes back to the words of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar the things that are of Caesar and to God the things that are of God.”