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Rethinking the History of Religious Freedom

Robert Louis Wilken—

In the Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940, that upheld compulsory pledging of allegiance to the U.S. flag in schools, Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority, said: “Centuries of strife over the erection of particular dogmas as exclusive or all-comprehending faiths led to the inclusion of a guarantee for religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.” Nevertheless Frankfurter argued that the “promotion of national cohesion” was a sufficient reason for requiring school children to recite the pledge. Three years later, however, the court reversed itself in Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that prohibited students from being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Frankfurter’s statement in the earlier case that religious freedom rose against the backdrop of religious wars became part of the historical understanding of religious freedom in US jurisprudence.

In another case before the court in 1947, Everson v. Board of Education, the debate centered on the use of public funds to support busing of children to parochial schools. Though the court decided to sanction the practice, again it invoked the specter of religious wars. In the opinion of Justice Black, [the] “words of the First Amendment reflected in the minds of early Americans a vivid mental picture of conditions and practices which they fervently wished to stamp out in order to preserve liberty for themselves and for their posterity.” It was, he adds, the fears and political problems caused by religious conflict that caused the phrase in the Bill of Rights that there could be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” A direct line ran from the wars of religion to the development liberty of conscience.

More recently, in March, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan, a historian and political commentator, wrote: “Only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual’s body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of state and church.” Kagan reflects the conventional view that religious freedom was the accomplishment of the Enlightenment. Like others, he assumes that by the end of the seventeenth century the fanaticism of religious believers gave way to the cool reason and skepticism of philosophers, and this in turn led to ideas about toleration and religious freedom.

What is missing in these accounts is the contribution of Christianity. Many believe that Christianity is inescapably intolerant and only with the decline of religious faith in western society, did liberty of conscience take root.  A more careful examination of the historical record will show that Christian thinkers provided the intellectual framework that made possible the rise of religious freedom. Already in the ancient world Christian writers argued, against their Roman persecutors, that religion could not be coerced. Religious belief by its very nature must be free. They also adapted and modified the understanding of conscience received from ancient philosophers who understood conscience a moral knowledge of one’s past actions. Christian thinkers, influenced by the use of the term conscience in the writings of the apostle Paul, began to see conscience not simply as knowledge of one’s past actions but as a pedagogue of future action. To take one example: in the sixteenth century when Protestant magistrates forced monks and sisters to abandon monastic life to embrace the teachings of the reformers, the abbess of a Franciscan community of sisters in Nuremberg in Bavaria told the city council: We hope that you will not apply pressure “in matters that concern conscience” and “force us to act against our wills to confess what the authorities want us to say.”

Of equal importance in the development of liberty of conscience were the writings of Christian who developed the view that civil authority and religious belief must be kept separate. They appealed to the medieval distinction of two powers, one religious, the other political (pope and emperor), what is sometimes called the two swords. Ultimately the distinction of realms goes back to the words of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar the things that are of Caesar and to God the things that are of God”. John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, put it best: “man is under a two-fold government, one that is spiritual and has to do with the worship of God, the other with safety, food, housing, the law and other things of the present life.” The distinction between the two realms would eventually give rise to the idea that church and state should be kept separate.  

Any account of the rise of religious freedom must give a large place to the intellectual contributions of Christian thinkers.


Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His many books include The First Thousand Years, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.


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Featured photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

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