Actually, Christianity Has Always Been Interested in Religious Freedom

Over at The Age, Matt Holden asks, “Since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?”

He gives the answer: “Not ever, really, is the short answer. Since the beginning, Christians have been busy attacking other people’s religious freedom by trying to convert them. Christianity has suppressed other people’s religious freedom everywhere from Rome to the outback.”

Sadly, this is an all too typical Fairfax anti-religious rant that exhibits a mixture of blinding ignorance and sheer leftie dogmatism over and against the historical facts.

Christians have never been interested in religious freedom! Really?

Well, here’s a quote from Tertullian in the late second century for a start:

We are worshippers of one God, of whose existence and character nature teaches all men; at whose lightning and thunder you tremble, whose benefits minister to your happiness. You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.
– Tertullian, To Scapula, 2.1-2.

And maybe Matt should also do some “research” and he might have come across this excellent volume Robert Louis Wilken, The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom (Milwaukee, WC; Marquette University Press, 2014).

He might also have learned about the International Association of Religious Freedom and the long-history of Christian involvement in that.

Quakers, Baptists, and Anabaptist have a long tradition of advocating for the separation of church and state as the chief instrument of religious freedom. Something ably demonstrated in Russell Moore’s recent article that Religious Freedom is for Non-Christians Too (all the more timely in Trump’s America).

Holden indicts Christians by asking where was the Christian support for the building of the Mosque in Bendigo when it faced protest. Well, if Holden had done some research, he would have learned that the Anglican and Uniting churches did support the construction of the Mosque and lead a rally in their support (see here).

As for religions keeping their noses out of the public square, well, I do believe the same thing was said to a certain Baptist preacher by the name of Martin Luther King.

Gosh, I am so sick and tired of pseudo-intellectual journalists who think that their 15 minutes of reading on wikipedia now makes them experts on the history of Christianity, the sociology of religion, and the meaning of secularism.

Of course, I’d like to ask Matt where were the defenders of religious freedom in Robespierre’s France, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China,  Castro’s Cuba, or in North Korea.


  • Nick Thompson

    This is a bit disingenuous. It would be truer to say that, at some points in Christian history, some Christians have been concerned about religious freedom for some people. However, even then, in most cases that last category has been *us* (i.e. the true-believers).

    Granted, the idea of secularity has its roots in the western Christian tradition. It’s also true to say that the American account of religious freedom is a by-product of that (though an unintended one, if we’re trying to track it back to the Reformation or earlier).

    It would be truer to say that for most of Christian history, most Christians believed that error has no rights – including civil rights. This was as much a Protestant claim as a Catholic one. The famous 1689 Act of Toleration extended, at best, grudging recognition to non-Anglican Protestants (non-Presbyterian in Scotland), and marginalisation to Catholics and non-Trinitarian Christians. These civil disabilities were only lifted in the late 1820s.

    Your Anabaptists and Baptists are, I admit, an exception, but he exception of a tiny minority. When Roger Williams tried to quote the relevant passages of Tertullian and Lactantius against the Scots and English Puritans, he met with derision. And maybe with some reason. The Letter to Scapula implies that there is a fundamental difference between religious freedom for Christians and pagans. Christians worship the true God, whom every human should worship. Pagans worship false gods, who do not exist. Thus, even from Tertullian’s perspective, there’s a fundamental difference in the claims of the two sides.

    This is why, I don’t think there’s such a big leap between the pre-Constantinian and post-Constantinian dispensations. For better or for worse, ideological exclusivism will always find it hard to resist the temptation of imposing itself on others when given a chance.