A Feature Review of
Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom
Robert Louis Wilken
Reviewed by John Ehrett
In many accounts of intellectual history, religious liberty is framed as one of the greatest achievements of liberal political philosophy—a necessary corrective to the hard-edged sectarianism of the medieval world. Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom aims to upend that paradigm: in this slender volume, University of Virginia professor emeritus Robert Louis Wilken offers a thorough rebuttal to the claim that religious liberty—as we understand it today—was purely a creation of the contemporary socio-political order.
In support of that argument, Wilken canvasses the history of Western Christian reasoning about religious liberty from the apostolic age to the eighteenth century. His account begins with the Apologyof the church father Tertullian—an extended argument that Christians ought not be persecuted for their refusal to venerate the Roman deities, because conscience can never be coerced. In Wilken’s telling, Tertullian’s robust defense of libertas religionis—that is, freedom of religion—marked the first time that phrase was used in the history of Western civilization, and influenced centuries of thinkers after him.
The bulk of Wilken’s book concentrates on Reformation-era debates concerning religion, from John Calvin’s Geneva to Oliver Cromwell’s England. Across nation after nation, the broad contours of Tertullian’s argument informed debates about the proper relationship between church and state—even if, all too often, the Reformers and their opponents failed to live out the principles of religious liberty that they preached. Commendably, Wilken never shies away from confronting hard realities, like Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus for denying the Trinity.
Crucially, at the heart of Wilken’s thesis is the insight that virtually all Christians who argued for religious freedom did so on expressly theological grounds. Their contention was straightforward: faith is, and always must be, an inner disposition of the heart. Though one may be compelled to receive the sacraments or participate in public worship, only God can know the innermost convictions of one’s heart. Thus, state power can never successfully produce a genuine faith (and, indeed, is likely to drive individuals away from sincere belief).
This also means that Wilken’s book is not—in any sense—an genealogy of contemporary secularity in the mold of Charles Taylor’s work. Though Wilken never explicitly develops this point, the examples he deploys make it abundantly clear that Christian defenses of religious freedom through the centuries neither implied a mandate to seize political power nor demanded a policy of “religious neutrality” on the part of the state. That is, what Christians sought in their appeals for religious freedom was not a wholesale reconstruction of the religio-political orders they inhabited—whether in an authoritarian or secular direction—but rather the ability “to follow their distinctive ways of life without interference from civil authority.”
On this account of religious freedom, the post-Reformation emergence of Hobbesian political philosophy—the affirmation that the state need not derive its legitimacy from a concept of divine right or natural law, which Leo Strauss called the emergence of “political atheism”—was not in fact a necessary condition for the existence of religious pluralism. Confessional states could still exist alongside a concept of religious freedom; religious dissenters asked only that they be left in peace. In so arguing, Wilken challenges the familiar maxim that the modern secular state emerged as an answer to the problem of interreligious warfare across Europe. Explaining the rise of the modern Western state thus calls for a more nuanced account.
Significantly, the conversations about religious freedom that began among early Christians did not end with the onset of modernity. As the book draws to a close, Wilken brings his argument full circle by highlighting the notes penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Founder’s personal copy of Tertullian. These notes clearly indicate that in Tertullian’s work, Jefferson glimpsed a parallel to his own thinking on religious freedom—thereby implying an essential continuity between the story Wilken tells and the constitutional order Americans inhabit today. In a very real sense, Christians in Western liberal democracies are in Tertullian’s debt.
At times, this general emphasis on Western Christianity can feel limiting: perhaps surprisingly, the book never discusses the traditionally sympathetic relationship between Orthodox Christianity and the state. Doing so would perhaps introduce a wrinkle into Wilken’s argument, given the Orthodox reticence to follow the West in distinguishing personal assent to doctrine from the lived experience of the faith. The authorities Wilken marshals generally defend religious freedom as an extension of the theological claim that “true” faith is more a matter of inward inclination than sacramental practice—but if that premise is called into question, Christian arguments over religious liberty might have looked quite different.<
John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Patrick Henry College.