The Story About Religious Freedom You Haven't Heard

The Christian origin of religious-freedom arguments.
Appears in Winter 2017 Issue: Ancient Friendships
December 1 st 2017

The story commonly told about the relation between Christianity and freedom of religion treats Christianity as an inherently intolerant and oppressive religion. The historian Perez Zagorin writes, of "all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant." And the well‐known political philosopher John Rawls remarked that his own theory of justice was influenced by taking note of the "endless oppressions and cruelties of state power and inquisition used to sustain Christian unity beginning as early as St. Augustine and extending into the eighteenth century."

Those who tell this story usually concede that there were a few exceptions: Christians who defended religious liberty. But these were few, so it is said, and the thinking of those few on the matter was not shaped by orthodox Christianity. They include Roger Williams, who escaped the oppressive confines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to found Rhode Island in 1643, and the unitarian John Locke, whose Letter on Toleration was published in 1689.

The essays in volume 1 bear the promise of overcoming the deep amnesia, apparently sometimes willed, that has settled over the world of present-day scholarship with respect to the positive contributions of Christianity to the theory and practice of freedom of religion.

It was not Christian theology, so the story goes, but the conflict and bloodshed that ensued upon the breakup of the religious unity of Europe by the Reformation that forced Christians, against their will, to tolerate religious beliefs and practices they disapproved of. And it was the secular thinkers of the European Enlightenment who first developed an intellectual defence of religious liberty.

The writers in the two volumes of Christianity and Freedom tell a different story—or more precisely, two different stories. They concede that Christians, in the name of their religion, have indeed often been intolerant and oppressive. In the essay that opens volume 1, Timothy Shah, one of the editors, writes that he does not intend "to diminish the historical guilt of Christianity or to downplay the involvement of too many Christians in too many persecutions of innocent human beings over the centuries" and elaborates the point at some length. But he and his fellow editor insist that this is not the whole story. Two additional storylines must be added.

The first is that Christian theology has been a source for religious freedom. In Shah's words:

Mainstream historic Christianity has frequently generated powerful ideas and practices of social and political freedom. Furthermore, in many of these cases, it is precisely some of the central, dogmatic affirmations of Christianity that have encouraged and inspired innovative notions and practices of freedom. . . . With remarkable frequency and in important cases, fresh notions and institutions of political and religious freedom have flowed directly from mainstream Christianity.

The first volume of Christianity and Freedom tells this story in the form of essays by fifteen authors, beginning the story with the second century and ending the story with the present day.

The second storyline that must be added is the story of Christians living under persecution and finding ways of coping— not the story of Christians persecuting others, but the story of others persecuting Christians. The story told here, in the form of essays by sixteen authors, is limited to the story of Christians living under persecution today. The story of Christians living under persecution throughout the centuries would be much too long.

The presentation of these two storylines, in essays that are perceptive, deeply researched, and written in a style accessible to laypersons, represents an extraordinarily important contribution to the full story of the complex relation between Christianity and freedom of religion. In particular, the essays in volume 1 bear the promise of overcoming the deep amnesia, apparently sometimes willed, that has settled over the world of presentday scholarship with respect to the positive contributions of Christianity to the theory and practice of freedom of religion.

A Present Reality

While the essays in volume 1 added rich texture to episodes in the history of Christianity that, for the most part, I was already somewhat familiar with, volume 2 was for me an eye‐opener. I had no idea of the extent and severity of persecution of Christians today. In his introduction to the volume, Allen Hertzke writes, "Christianity faces a global crisis of persecution, as believers in many places around the world suffer harassment, marginalization, and violence—in more countries and under more diverse settings than any other faith group." He cites John Allen, one‐time senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and now editor of the online publication Crux, as claiming "that the persecution of Christians is the most dramatic religion story in the early twentyfirst century, yet one that many in the West have little idea is even happening." To my shame, I was among that many. The newspapers and magazines I read, and the newscasts I watch and listen to, give almost no indication of what is happening. But in his contribution to this volume, Todd Johnson, an expert on global Christian demography, estimates that some 500 million Christians—about 22 percent of the total Christian population—live in countries where they are subject to persecution.

Not only were the descriptions of presentday persecution eye‐opening for me. They brought me up short. When I think about living as a Christian in the world, I never think about living under persecution—for the obvious reason that I do not live under persecution. But even when I have written, more generally, about living as a Christian in the world, I have not brought living under persecution into the picture. Reading this volume made me realize how parochial my thinking has been. For many Christians today, living as a Christian is living under persecution.

Whereas I already knew the main outlines of the story told in volume 1, my guess is that I differ, in that regard, from most readers of this review. They will only have heard the story commonly told about the relation between Christianity and freedom of religion. They will have been offered no reason to think that that story is radically incomplete and distorted. The alternative storyline will be, for them, an eye‐opener, as the descriptions of present‐day persecution of Christians were for me.

The newspapers and magazines I read, and the newscasts I watch and listen to, give almost no indication of what is happening.

The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom

The story begins in the early centuries of Christianity. In 313, the Christian emperor Constantine joined his co‐emperor Licinius in issuing the so‐called Edict of Milan. The edict granted "to Christians and to all people, freedom to follow whatever religion each one wished [liberam potestam sequendi religionem quam quisque voluisset]." Two years earlier the emperor Galerius, on his deathbed, had issued a decree of toleration of Christians. "Once more they may be Christians and put together their meeting places," provided they "pray to their god for our safety." Toleration is putting up with something one finds objectionable for the sake of some greater good. The Edict of Milan was a decree of religious freedom, not a decree of toleration. It was, in fact, "the world's first [official] declaration of universal religious freedom."

How did the edict come about? The clue is the presence at Constantine's court of the Christian scholar Lactantius. In his tract Divine Institutes Lactantius wrote,

The worship of God . . . requires full commitment and faith. For how will God love the worshipper if he himself is not loved by him, or grant to the petitioner whatever he asks when he draws near and offers his prayer without sincerity or reverence. But they [the Romans], when they come to offer sacrifice, offer to their gods nothing from within, nothing of themselves, no innocence of mind, no reverence, no awe. . . . [Religion] cannot be coerced. It is a matter to be dealt with by words not by blows. For it has to do with the will.

In his essay in volume 1, Robert Wilken observes that it's likely that Lactantius read his Divine Institutes aloud in the presence of the emperor.

Lactantius was acquainted with the writings of the Latin church father Tertullian, of a century earlier. In the year 212, in the midst of severe persecution of his fellow Christians in Carthage, Tertullian wrote to the proconsul of the province in defence of Christianity as follows:

It is a person's human right [humani juris] and inborn capacity [naturalis potestatis] to worship whatever he intends; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is no part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by free choice not coercion that we should be led to religion. A willing mind is looked for even from him who sacrifices.

In his Apology of fifteen years earlier (197) Tertullian had used the phrase "religious liberty" (libertas religionem) for the first time in history. Addressing Romans in general he wrote, "See that you do not give a reason for impious religious practice by taking away religious liberty [libertatem religionis] and prohibiting choice [optione] in divine matters, so that I may not worship as I wish [velim], but am forced to worship what I do not wish."

The writers in Christianity and Freedom note the similarity between Lactantius's argument and that of Tertullian. Both employed the idea of true religion as a matter of will or choice. What the writers in Christianity and Freedom do not note— somewhat to my surprise—is that these two ancient writers employed the idea in two fundamentally different arguments for freedom of religion. What Lactantius argued was that religious coercion is ineffective. It cannot achieve the good of bringing about genuine religion in the person persecuted. Though Tertullian, no doubt, agreed, what he argued was that religious coercion is morally wrong. Every human being has a natural right, an inherent privilege, to worship according to his or her convictions.

We know of no one before Tertullian, either Christian or pagan, who spoke of the human or natural right to worship God as one chooses. Nor do we know of anyone before Tertullian who spoke of religious liberty. The idea that there is a natural human right to freedom of religion was not devised by the secular thinkers of the eighteenth‐century Enlightenment. It was introduced to the world by the early Christian apologist Tertullian.

Did the idea emerge in Tertullian's mind out of the blue? In one way, yes; in some other ways, no. In his contribution to these volumes, Timothy Shah notes that when the topic of persecution was raised by early Christian writers—and it was raised often— it was almost always raised in the context of pastoral advice to their fellow Christians on how to live under persecution and how to understand it theologically. For such advice, the New Testament offered rich theological resources that were taken up and developed in imaginative ways by early Christian writers. It was assumed, of course, that persecution is bad. But, "rather than consciously and deliberately deploy reasons to condemn or resist persecution, the early apostles developed a theological affirmation of persecution—as something one should choose to embrace and suffer. The strength and consistency with which they affirm this suffering almost parallel a ‘preferential option for persecution.'"

The idea that there is a natural human right to freedom of religion was not devised by the secular thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. It was introduced to the world by the early Christian apologist Tertullian.

There were two Christian writers before Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Athenagoras of Athens, who, rather than addressing their fellow Christians with advice on how to understand and live under persecution, addressed the Roman authorities with a plea to cease their persecution of Christians. But neither Justin nor Athenagoras argued for the freedom of religion in general. Justin argued that the emperor should not believe the rumours going around about Christians committing crimes and should, accordingly, stop treating them as criminals. And Athenagoras argued that the Christian religion was as useful to the empire as any other religion in which "men venerate as gods those whom they wish." "Through fear of the divine they refrain from evil."

A Right to Religious Freedom

Though Tertullian's claim that there is a natural human right to religious freedom came out of the blue—"one of the most radical conceptual innovations in human history," Shah notes—the thought underlying his claim did not. Tertullian would have picked up from the Hebrew prophets and from the New Testament the idea that true religion is a matter of the heart and will. But why did he not employ this idea as Lactantius did, to argue that coercion cannot achieve the good of engendering true religion in the one persecuted? Why did he instead claim that everybody has a natural right to freedom of religion? What was the connection in Tertullian's mind between true religion being a matter of the will and everybody having a natural right to freedom of religion?

Tertullian doesn't say. But perhaps we can speculate. In his writings, Tertullian refers several times to the passage in Genesis where we read that God created human beings in God's own image. About this cryptic passage Tertullian says, "Man was created by God as free, with power to choose and power to act. . . . There is no clearer indication in him of God's image and similitude than this." This freedom, he goes on to say, is a mark of man's "dignity." Was it perhaps Tertullian's intuitive conviction, unarticulated, that to deprive a person of his or her free choice in a matter as important as religion is to violate the dignity they possess as created in God's own image? Was it his thought that everybody has a natural human right to freedom of religion because depriving them of that freedom of religion would violate their inherent dignity?

If this was indeed how Tertullian was thinking, then his argument was far more powerful than the argument of Lactantius. Lactantius argued that coercion cannot bring about the good of genuine religious conviction. Religion is "a matter to be dealt with by words not by blows." But perhaps there are other (purported) goods that coercion can bring about. Many post‐Constantinian regimes in Christendom believed, for example, that coercion advanced the good of hindering the spread of heresy.

Indeed, within a decade after proclaiming the Edict of Milan Constantine himself had backed away from the declaration in the edict that everyone is "free to follow whatever religion each one wished." In his position as Christian emperor he began not only to verbally abuse the pagans but also to hint that he would order the elimination of their rites if he could. In a letter of 324 he wrote, "Let them [the pagans] keep if they wish their sanctuaries of falsehood. To us belongs the shining light of [God's] truth." "I hear some persons are saying that the customs of the temples and the agency of darkness have been removed altogether. I would indeed have recommended that to all mankind were it not that the violent rebelliousness of injurious error is so obstinately fixed in the minds of [the pagans] to the detriment of the common weal." Constantine's thought, apparently, is that he would have ordered the elimination of the pagan cults were it not for the fact that the pagans were so devoted to their erroneous ways that they would resist violently. Constantine was, at best, tolerating the pagans, not treating them equally with Christians with respect to their religion.

History shows that any argument for religious freedom in terms of some good to be achieved—or any argument against religious coercion in terms of its inability to achieve some good—is vulnerable to the insistence of opponents that there is some yet greater good to be achieved by coercion than the one mentioned. But if each and every one of us has a natural human right to freedom of religion, then no amount of goods to be achieved by coercion can justify depriving anybody of that freedom. Here's why. If you have a right to freedom of religion, then you would be wronged if I deprived of the exercise of that right. And if you would be wronged, then I ought not to do that. And if I ought not to do that, then I am not morally permitted to do that. It is never morally permissible to do what one ought not to do. Wronging someone— depriving them of what is their right—is never morally permissible.

For me it was fascinating to observe, as I read through the essays in volume 1 of Christianity and Freedom, how arguments for or against religious coercion that appeal to some good to be achieved gradually gave way, over the course of history, to arguments claiming that there is a natural human right to freedom of religion—fascinating to observe how Lactantius‐type arguments gave way to the Tertullian argument. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church finally put behind it the Lactantius‐type arguments it had long used to justify religious coercion and articulated a rightsbased argument for religious freedom. By virtue of our dignity as human beings, we have a right to worship God as we please— or not to worship God.

Most parts of the long story told by the essays in volume 1, Historical Perspectives, have been told previously, often by contributors to this volume. But I know of no previous volume in which that long story is told in its entirety. That is the signal contribution of this volume. I have focused on the beginnings of the story because, as it turns out, that is where the basic terms of the arguments that followed were first employed. But the discussion of subsequent episodes is no less rich and fascinating than the discussion of the beginning.

Christians throughout the ages have been guilty of egregious intolerance and persecution on account of religion. But it was also one of them who, early in the third century, first made the bold and unprecedented claim that we all have a natural human right to freedom of religion. And today it is they who are the most persecuted on account of their religion.


Nicholas Wolterstorff received his A.B. from Calvin College in 1953, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1956. After teaching philosophy for two years at Yale, he returned to the philosophy department at his alma mater in 1959. He returned to Yale in 1989, where he was on the faculty of the Divinity School and associate faculty of the Philosophy Department and the Religious Studies Department. He has taught, during leaves of absence, at Haverford College, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, the University of Texas, Notre Dame University, and the Free University of Amsterdam. He retired from teaching at the end of 2001, and is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.