The Religious Left employs scare quotes and accuses orthodox Christians of fostering a “persecution complex.” Although popular liberal authors’ books dominate the Christian Living section, their rhetoric doesn’t stop 56 percent of faithful Millennial Christians from recognizing America’s religious freedoms are fading fast. What Millennials aren’t sure about is why this happening and how to effectively respond.
James Tonkowich, author and former president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), offers Christians clarity by examining Church history in his new book The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today. As Tonkowich’s winsomely notes, “It’s impossible to understand where we are and where we’re going without understanding where we’ve been.”
The Beginning of Liberty
The Liberty Threat began with a chapter called, “The Ancient Christian Roots of Modern Religious Liberty.” Perhaps like me, you’re a Millennial Christian and you never developed a strong grounding in Church history growing up in an Evangelical denomination.
Little did I know that early Church history holds the key to understanding modern religious liberty. I’m still learning with the help of Tonkowich. He related the stories of martyrs like Cyprian who was beheaded for Christ in third-century Carthage and other early Christians, including Paul and Peter, who chose to suffer the consequences rather than worship the Roman Empire’s gods and emperors. Although the ancient world largely refused to afford religious liberty to the early Church, persecution failed to snuff out Christians’ growing faith and evangelism.
Tonkowich then introduced readers to the first architect of religious liberty, a Christian named Tertullian who recognized every individual’s fundamental human right to live and work and freely according to their faith. Tertullian challenged the Roman government’s control over religion and reasoned that religious liberty was necessary for a stable society.
From Tertullian, Tonkowich moved a century forward, detailing Constantine’s unprecedented edict implementing the freedom of religion. Constantine’s policy officially recognized that all people, not just Christians, had the right to openly worship according to their faith without fear of persecution. It didn’t last.
Tonkowich pointed out that during the period following Constantine’s edict of Milan, some Christians persecuted their pagan neighbors. In turn, Christians were once more persecuted by pagans under Emperor Julian the Apostate, a mere fifty years after Constantine’s edict.
Tonkowich’s examination of history continues with Christians’s abuse of power from the Middle Ages until the American Founding Fathers’ idea of religious liberty emerged as the bedrock of a free society. But as Tonkovich notes, interpretations of religious liberty went awry during the late 1800s, a problem that deepened in the mid-twentieth century, and continues intensifying in the present day.
These history lessons are just a few of the countless gems contained in The Liberty Threat.
It would be unfair to the author to summarize the entire contents of chapters two through four, so purchase a copy of The Liberty Threat to find out what exactly went wrong. I’ll just offer a few hints: It involves a Great Wall, Mormons, and the public school system. (You can download the audio version of the book here.)
Liberty versus Tolerance
Tonkowich wrote The Liberty Threat with one central goal: help readers grasp Church history so they understand the current trajectory of religious liberty for Christians.
With a clear understanding of history, Tonkowich explains that we can quickly detect significant differences between religious tolerance and religious liberty, or the Obama Administrations’ preferred “freedom of worship” versus the Bill of Right’s intended “freedom of religion.” One represents the freedom to openly live, think, act, work, and evangelize according to one’s faith, while other merely tolerates one’s private worship.
Tension between tolerance of religion or “freedom of worship” represents the current state of affairs in America. Citizens can believe whatever they like privately, unless it affects current popular opinion. Then you must compromise your conscience. Tolerance, therefore, is not freedom. And yes, as history tells Christians, our situation can worsen in America.
Hostility towards religion has never been more severe in America than it is now, says Tonkowich. But don’t become angry or discouraged. There is hope.
The Liberty Threat serves as a primer for successfully reasserting our religious liberty. Tonkowich provided an annotated list of many well-respected groups and activists working hard to protect and promote religious liberty and the resources they offer. Among them was the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Tonokowich said the IRD “has staff dedicated entirely to religious liberty. Their website and blog provide easily accessible information on current domestic and international religious liberty issues.”
Indeed, my colleagues and I are devoted to promoting freedom in the public square and confronting those who seek to rob of us of our religious liberty. We are also committed to a strong witness for Jesus Christ, and as Tonkowich notes, that’s what life is all about.
Religious liberty isn’t simply about easy, comfortable living for all. We live in a fallen world in need of Jesus Christ’s redeeming salvation of. Religious liberty allows for the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom.
“Until Jesus returns, His kingship will continue to be in dispute and our faith will continue to be in dispute,” Tonkowich concluded. “Only religious liberty allows everyone to ask and answer the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’”