Reforming Politics

Review: 'Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom' by Robert Louis Wilken

Geneva's Reformation Wall / Getty Images

When the cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire and live video hit the airwaves, for a brief moment, something religious held everyone's attention. Granted, to AP headline writers it's a "tourist mecca … also revered as place of worship," but even philistines understood they were seeing a church burning, not an office or an airport. We were all reminded that Notre Dame was built in the 13th century, vandalized by Huguenots in the 16th, and entered a state of disrepair in the 19th, and its restoration then may even be inspiration for builders now—as long as modernist starchitects don't seize the moment. Notre Dame stands as a silent critique to secularism and a reminder of Europe's Christian roots.

But as much as believers may hope its survival and restoration could coincide with a rebirth of Christianity in the West, the history Notre Dame lived through isn't the soaring endorsement of Christianity one would want. The Huguenots' unconscionable desecration of Notre Dame was but one volley in a disturbing history of mutual antagonism and vicious persecution among different religious groups in France and Europe as a whole.

In his superb new book, Robert Louis Wilken makes a persuasive case that Christians developed the idea of religious liberty before the Enlightenment, but they did so while Christian authorities allowed, endorsed, and even carried out vicious religious persecution. Some of the very theologians writing about Christian freedom turned around and backed laws outlawing different forms of worship. Wilken charts all this with admirable nuance in such a short read. Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom doesn't gloss over this history, sanitize it, or offer excuses for the very un-Christian behavior of Christian authorities. His work is commendable, but at times you long for the relief sanitization or excuses might bring.

Many passages in Wilken's book are downright maddening. One Christian group endures persecution just to turn around and do the same, either to their persecutors or to another sect. John Calvin, whose own followers faced some of the most vile religious persecution in European history, was blind enough to sign off on the execution of a heretical teacher—this after he had written on the protections civic authorities owe to matters of conscience. Calvin's lack of clarity on religious liberty would again prove lamentable when American Christians John Cotton and Roger Williams both used his writings to argue different sides of the religious freedom question, culminating in Williams getting a charter to found Providence Plantation, now Rhode Island, before English authorities realized he had the audacity to support universal religious freedom.

A key thread picked up by Wilken is that religious liberty proponents knew it wasn't merely an individual right. If it were just an individual right, that would allow authorities to justify curtailments on assembly, preaching, teaching, and all the rest. The lesson for our present day is clear: If we allow conscience rights to extend only as far as an individual's feelings, we will cripple the legal framework that allows religious communities to flourish.

The heart of Wilken's book is the relationship between citizens and the state. If a government offers mere toleration or indulgence of religion—as Roman emperor Galerius chose to do when Diocletian's severe persecution proved politically unsustainable—religious liberty still lacks secure footing. From Jesus' command to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," most Christians understood there were differences in principle between religious and temporal authority, but the exact meaning was hotly contested once Christians themselves had Caesar's authority.

It's often the small names in Christian history that you find correct where the giants were wrong. Little-known Reformer Sebastian Castellio stood up to Calvin himself on the matter of legislating orthodoxy. Calvin accused him of "undermining the prestige of the clergy" after he called for religious freedom, so Castellio left Geneva and lived out his days in extreme poverty, but his maxim remains clear in its rebuke of Calvin: "To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man." Castellio is one of many figures who may not have whole chapters in history textbooks but whose words and deeds Wilken uses to great effect, even as he demonstrates the grave errors of well-known figures like Ulrich Zwingli.

It's true that the Enlightenment didn't concoct the idea of religious liberty to deal with religious conflict, but the failure of authority figures to apply Christian teaching justly created a problem that leaders of the Enlightenment sought to solve. Wilken's book culminates with John Locke's argument that religious liberty is a principle that doesn't require you to agree to any particular doctrines. Basing his argument on reason gave Locke the high ground in an Enlightenment context. Those of us living today should be exceedingly grateful his ideas were put into the U.S. Constitution, proving that full religious liberty is workable after all.

Locke was one of the few to deny the value of bringing politics to the church, and Wilken praises him for seeing that the "Church is more apt to be influenced by the court than the court by the church." This transpired with Arian emperors in the fourth century and in England after the Reformation. "How easily and smoothly the Clergy changed their Decrees," Locke wrote, "their Articles of Faith, their Form of Worship, everything according to the inclinations of those Kings and Queens." A warning to traditionalists: Wedding religion to the state redounds to the benefit of those holding state power.

Unfortunately, the problems of religious discord are not limited to churches themselves. Secularism contains within it all the necessary ingredients of this totalist thought. Those who consider speech violence and conservative morals a public menace are reminiscent of the theocratic magistrates in Wilken's book who claimed it was simply too difficult to govern a society without shared faith. As the thinking goes, troublemakers must be marginalized and punished for a truly loving society to emerge. This is tyranny, whether it wears the bishop's mitre, the judge's robes, or the bureaucrat's suit, and it must be resisted. Wilken doesn't opine on our contemporary debates on religious expression in the public square, but his book makes the historical record clear: Coercing belief is a nasty business that never leads to a utopia of social harmony.