The solid, slightly out-of-season Christian case for religious freedom

The solid, slightly out-of-season Christian case for religious freedom

by Steven Smith | April 26, 2019


Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom    
by Robert Wilken  
Yale University Press, 2019. 248 pages

In ascertaining what an author is trying to do, it can be helpful to figure out what he is trying to undo. In other words, what is he writing against?

In Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, historian Robert Wilken tells us at the outset what his primary target is: he aims to debunk the view that the commitment to religious freedom originated during the Enlightenment in opposition to an inherited Christianity that was “inescapably intolerant and . . . prone to violence.” Whether this is the most eligible target today is open to question, but the view Wilken opposes in this book is surely familiar. It might be said to be the official story in American constitutional jurisprudence, having been served up in Everson v. Board of Education, the seminal modern Establishment Clause case. The view remains common enough in popular and even academic discourse. It is a view worth refuting.

Wilken does refute it, decisively. He demolishes the notion that religious freedom was created by Enlightenment rationalism and persuasively shows that it was grounded in longstanding Christian ideals. He himself downplays this achievement: he hopes, he says, “sketchily” to provide “some background” for understanding the modern developments. This description is unduly modest, I think. To be sure, Wilken’s book is short—it is closer to being a survey than a comprehensive history—and his thesis is hardly novel. Even so, he amply demonstrates, on the basis of numerous well-selected examples and episodes, that the central ideas that animated leading modern proponents of religious freedom are traceable back to ancient and early modern Christian sources.

The Christian History of Religious Freedom

Actually, “traceable” understates the case. Beginning with Tertullian and Lactantius in late antiquity, and intensifying with the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian thinkers emphasized over and over again what they took to be implications of the Gospel: that faith must be free, that people must be allowed to act in accordance with conscience, and that earthly governments lack jurisdiction over the realm of the spirit. These ideas were promoted not just by the usual familiar luminaries—Roger Williams, William Penn, John Locke—but by a large and engaging cast of less famous characters: Caritas Pinckheimer, George Froelich, Robert Persons, Thomas Helwys, and many others. Nor did these advocates of religious freedom merely advance ideas similar to those of Tertullian and Lactantius; they often read and quoted Tertullian and Lactantius—and, of course, the Bible. With a historian’s excitement of discovery, Wilken reports holding in his hand the volume of Tertullian in which Thomas Jefferson had marked a passage proclaiming the necessity of freedom in matters of religion.    

In expounding these themes, Wilken emphasizes critical supplementary ideas. Both the ancient and early modern Christian writers, he shows, were committed to freedom of religion not only for individuals, but for communities, and for churches. (The development of this commitment under modern conditions, he explains, entailed reconceiving the church as a voluntary association of like-minded believers—a transformation that arguably reflects some ecclesiological slippage.) Wilken also argues that in the development of religious freedom, what was initially understood as a policy of toleration was transformed into a commitment to a “right” of complete equality in matters of religion. He seems to regard this as a fortunate advance, as have others (such as John Noonan) who have noticed the same evolution. My own view is to the contrary. Be that as it may, Wilken is surely correct in noticing this change in the way religious freedom came to be conceptualized.

Wilken presents the developments he discusses in an affirming tone. He plainly thinks that the proponents of religious freedom were correct in their understanding of Christianity, and that thinkers who rejected or resisted modern notions of religious freedom—a company that would include non-neglible figures like, say, Augustine and Aquinas—were mistaken. Readers who are not already inclined to this conclusion may find the case less than compelling, but most readers will probably be predisposed to agree. There are of course powerful people today who are averse to any very robust right of religious freedom, but their aversion comes from a wholly different direction.

The Agenda of Equality

Current controversies pit the proponents of an ample religious freedom not against religious inquisitors who seek to impose Christian orthodoxy, but rather against a new cadre of campaigners who aggressively promote secular ideology presented under the banner of “equality.” These campaigners would enforce their version of equality against people—wedding photographers, floral arrangers, cake artists, Christ-centered businesses or other organizations—who on grounds of conscience resist being conscripted into celebrating same-sex weddings or providing contraceptives or abortifacients to their employees. These are the particular skirmishes of today. Other battles will surely follow. So, do the historical Christian rationales described by Wilken provide any help with respect to this more contemporary agenda?

Although he does not address the question explicitly, Wilken does suggest that the rationales establish some sort of “natural right” to religious freedom. That conclusion seems contestable, to say the least. A case for religious freedom grounded in Christian premises is unlikely to persuade someone who does not accept those premises. Nor will it convince someone who thinks, on separationist or Rawlsian grounds, that such premises are inadmissible in current constitutional discourse. The argument that “only a sincere and voluntary faith leads to salvation” will not speak to a regulator who has no interest in salvation anyway, and who is acting for some other, more earth-bound purpose. Wilken notes that the rationale advanced by Tertullian carried little force for Roman authorities who “had no interest in what Christians held in their hearts—they cared about what Christians did (or did not do) publicly.” A similar observation would be apt today.

Or perhaps not so apt. It often seems that the advocates of “equality” today do care, intensely, about what Christians hold “in their hearts.” They may think, as Judge Vaughn Walker purported to find in the Proposition 8 case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, that “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.” These advocates would impose sanctions and constrict liberty as a way of redressing the “dignitary injury” that such offensive beliefs are thought to inflict and, they hope, of inducing Christians to change their hearts and minds in a progressive direction.

Suspicions of Religious Freedom

Some years ago, I published an article that made (albeit much less learnedly) an argument similar to Wilken’s. Both as a historical and a contemporary matter, I argued, the case for religious liberty depended and depends on Christian rationales.

At the time, the constitutional commitment to religious liberty appeared to be solidly entrenched, as the near-universal condemnation of the Supreme Court’s contraction of religious freedom in Employment Division v. Smith (the peyote case) seemed to indicate. So it seemed that the practical consequence of the argument would be to call into question the widespread assumption that religious rationales should be excluded from public discourse. If a cherished constitutional commitment can be persuasively justified only on religious grounds, perhaps those grounds should not be ruled off-limits? But things have changed. Far from being generally cherished, the commitment to religious freedom is sorely beleaguered: the live question today is whether there is any good justification for retaining such a commitment. And to today’s academic and legal powers that be, an argument showing that the commitment is grounded in Christian rationales will seem to count against the commitment, not for it.

More generally, I have argued elsewhere that current culture wars can be understood as a kind of counterrevolution in which progressives seek to shake off the tattered remains of the Christian revolution of the Fourth Century, whereby Christianity prevailed (officially at least) in overcoming classical paganism. On that interpretation, the Christian character of the traditional American commitment to religious freedom is a principal reason why contemporary progressives are so suspicious of that commitment.

In short, under current circumstances, the conclusion so solidly established by Wilken’s historical study may actually work against religious freedom. And yet I do not offer these observations in criticism. A scholar is supposed to pursue and expound the truth without being overly distracted by possible political consequences. Robert Wilken is an outstanding scholar, and I have profited tremendously from his work. Wilken’s book has the virtue of advancing and abundantly supporting a thesis that is both important and true. Even (or especially) under current conditions, that is an achievement to admire.

Steven D. Smith is a Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. His recent publications include Pagans and Christians in the City (Eerdmans 2018) and The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Harvard 2014). This book review has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.   


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