By Rick Plasterer
That traditional Christian doctrine and morality curtails freedom has been a common theme in the ongoing controversy concerning religion and society in the western world. This is being challenged by a new initiative of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs.
An initial symposium on the project was held Friday, December 14, at Georgetown University. In the first of two panels, moderator Timothy Samuel Shah, Associate Director of the Religious Freedom Project , indicated a common assumption by both liberal and conservative theorists is that the “Christian and liberal traditions are at odds.” But panelists showed that religious freedom has roots in ancient and even medieval Christianity, and indeed, the very concept of religious liberty first appears in history with the development of pre-Enlightenment Christianity.
The first panelist, Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia noted that the so-called “Edict of Milan,” in fact a letter from Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius to provincial governors, is the “first [official] document that uses the word freedom [with respect to religion] and talks about it as a right.” The emperors drew on the thought of earlier Christian thinkers Tertullian and Lactantius. The former was the first person to use the term “religious freedom,” and declared it is a “natural right” to worship according to one’s own convictions. Wilken said that Tertullian believed that “religion cannot be coerced because religion is a matter of the will; it is an interior disposition.” Lactantius, a Christian apologist who lived in the intense persecution immediately preceding the imperial letter, conveyed the religious freedom doctrine of Tertullian to his own day. These ideas, Wilken claimed, “were without precedent in the ancient world.” Thus, the claim that toleration belongs to the Enlightenment rather than traditional Christianity is incorrect. A key idea is that faith is not efficacious to salvation unless it is sincere. “If anyone is brought to the water of baptism not by sweetness and freedom, but by compulsion, he will return to his former way of life” Pope Gregory the Great maintained. Freedom for even “erroneous conscience” was also upheld by Thomas Aquinas who held that “unbelievers are by no means to be compelled to the faith … because to believe depends on the will,” Wilken pointed out.
While Wilken indicated that there was “no straight line” from ideas of religious freedom in ancient and medieval Christian thought to early modern thought on toleration, advocates of religious freedom in that day, such as Roger Williams and William Penn, appealed to Biblical passages and the early Christian writings of Tertullian and Lactantius, as well as to reason, and experience. These ideas were then conveyed on to Revolutionary America and the constitution of the new republic through such thinkers as John Witherspoon and James Madison. The latter, in his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” stated that the “religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.”
David Little of the Berkley Center then expanded on Roger Williams thought on religious freedom. Little showed how Williams ideas derived from the early Calvin, who in contrast to the later Calvin, held that civil magistrates only had power to enforce the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments, pertaining to human society, not the first tablet, which pertains to the worship of God. The “first codification” of religious freedom, Little noted, was the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, which guaranteed to Rhode Island inhabitants “the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights.” Because Williams so clearly advanced an idea of religious freedom in more or less a modern sense, many secular scholars have held him to be a “freethinker,” or perhaps a “transcendental mystic,” but his ideas are not thought to comport with orthodox Christianity.
Little, however, in showing Williams’ indebtedness to the early Calvin, urged that Williams was “above all a Puritan very much in the Calvinist mold.”
Finally, Robert Woodberry of the University of Texas at Austin discussed contributions of Protestant missionaries in the spread of religious and political freedom in the non-Western world. Missionaries served the cause of religious freedom, in fact freedom in general, by reporting back to their home countries persecution and oppression that was occurring in the lands to which they were sent. Also, through the missionaries’ “organizational forms, fund raising techniques, and nonviolent protest tactics,” indigenous social movements appeared that furthered local freedoms, giving rise to a “civil society.” In the many British colonies where there was eventually “a high degree of religious liberty,” the blessings of freedom became established, while in the areas where “the British prevented missionaries from entering to avoid offending local rulers … such as Somalia, northern Nigeria, and parts of Sri Lanka and Burma” the post-colonial states continue “to restrict religious liberty and use violence against religious minorities.”
While secular scholars claim that “expanding state penetration and a rising bourgeoisie caused” the appearance of civil society and its freedoms in the non-western world, Woodberry observed the great difference in social structure between the Protestant West and non-western indigenous societies, and the fact that the emergence of reformist movements “lagged” in “France, Belgium, or southern Germany.” “The spread of religious liberty and the proliferation of nonstate Protestant organizations seem more plausible” as an explanation for the expansion of civil society.
The advance of religious liberty through Protestant missions is directly related to Protestant doctrine, Woodberry maintained. “Belief that salvation is through faith alone, not through sacraments or group membership, helped Protestants to make the transition to religious liberty…Conversionary Christians also took the command of Christ seriously that they should spread the Gospel to every language, tribe, people and nation. This means they have worked to open closed societies to missions and create conditions where people are able to convert and worship freely.”