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The Christian patristic roots of religious liberty

One of the aspects that I left out of my article yesterday on fifth European Catholic-Orthodox Forum statement worth noting is its declaration on the origins of religious liberty. Freedom of conscience and the right to choose one’s own religion – two human rights extolled by the modern, secular EU – grew out of the Christian conception of human dignity. Specifically, they originate with second-century Christian writers, according to the fifth European Catholic-Orthodox Forum's statement:

We have endeavoured to recall the first legal text to introduce freedom of religion, the Edict of Milan of the Emperor Constantine in 313. We also vividly recall that it was the Christian Apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries who claimed the freedom to believe in a society that did not have any understanding of the distinction between religious and civil society. The Edict of Constantine proclaims the right of each person freely to decide for himself or herself the religious faith which he or she is to follow. It insists that religious groups must coexist peacefully with each other in society throughout the world. It indicates that political power should not favour a particular religion, but respect the "supreme divinity," which each religion names according to its convictions. The legal foundations of the secularity of the modern state are inspired by these insights. The state guarantees religious freedom for all, but it is itself subject to a natural ethical order from which it cannot escape.

The Christian writers known as “apologists” pioneered the modern era of religious liberty by saying that freedom of religion is an intrinsic part of human nature – a “fundamental human right” – that grows out of the religious understanding of human dignity. Further, only belief free from all coercion could be worthy of any deity, they argued in their petitions for the persecuted Christian faith to be granted toleration.

Tertullian wrote in his Apology (around 197 A.D.) that every individual should be free to worship according to the dictates of his conscience:

Let one man worship God, another Jupiter; let one lift suppliant hands to the heavens, another to the altar of Fides; let one — if you choose to take this view of it — count in prayer the clouds, and another the ceiling panels; let one consecrate his own life to his God, and another that of a goat. For see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it. Not even a human being would care to have unwilling homage rendered him.

More than a decade later, he used startlingly modern language in his letter To Scapula, writing, “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions … It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion.”

Similar notions can be found in the writings of St. Justin Martyr.

A century after him, shortly before the Edict of Milan, Lactantius wrote in Divine Institutes: “[I]f you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshiper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away and ceases to exist."

The conception of religion that shaped Western civilization demands voluntary worship offered in homage – and as an act of justice – by human beings whose rational faculties continue to bear the image of God. This requires society guarantee the freedom to use of those faculties apart from the threat of aggression.

The notion of religious freedom remains integral to the European consciousness. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” However, the signatories of the Catholic-Orthodox statement note that today Christians face a difficult time living out their vocations according to the dictates of their own consciences.

Can such freedom long endure apart from the faith that produced it? “Human rights documents presuppose the Christian legacy, which is not only a system of thought and a worldview that took shape through the contributions of the Christian and Greek spirit, but also a tradition of self-criticism and repentance,” wrote Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos in Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns. (Read John Couretas’ review in Religion & Liberty here.) But “rights declarations are incapable of inducing anyone of implementing their declarations voluntarily.” Instead, “[t]he power and means for promoting worldwide equality and brotherhood lie not in waging crusades but in freely accepting the cross.”

A culture that (freely) embraces this view of human nature and human dignity – and only such a culture – gives room for political structures to respect these and other human rights. Lord Acton wrote, “Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds … It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.”

Any other culture cannot nourish the roots necessary for such a right to be exercised, just as it is impossible for a building to be supported without a sufficiently sturdy foundation – another subject about which the supranational government in Brussels could learn from Christianity.

(Photo credit: Romana Klee. Cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News. 

He was managing