The title of this well-informed book is straightforward enough, but its subtitle—The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom—carries with it an element of surprise. Here the distinguished scholar Robert Louis Wilken sets his face firmly against what he dubs “the dominant narrative” concerning the rise to prominence in the European world of the commitment to religious toleration and freedom of religious practice. According to that narrative, such a commitment, far from being the deliverance of Christianity, represents its antithesis. Religion is “prone to violence,” it says; Christianity is “inescapably intolerant.” It was only in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when “the fanaticism of religious believers gave way to the cool reason of the philosophers,” that the commitment to liberty of conscience, toleration, and religious freedom was able to move into the foreground. Catholics especially—at least those of us who are somewhat shamefacedly conscious of the fact that it was only at the Second Vatican Council that such principles were finally to receive formal ecclesiastical approbation—may be even more inclined than most to take that dominant narrative for granted. If that is indeed so, we would do ourselves a favor by reading this book.
It was thinkers like the English philosopher John Locke who had helped shape Thomas Jefferson’s thinking when he became the author of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. But Wilken draws our attention to the intriguing fact that in Jefferson’s personal copy of his Notes on the State of Virginia, and on the page where he says that one person’s religion does not harm another, he inscribed a passage from the third-century Christian writer Tertullian to the effect that “one person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another,” that coercion has no place in matters religious, and that “every person should be able to worship according to his convictions.”
In directing our attention to this fact Wilken is careful to disavow any intention of suggesting that Jefferson was somehow “influenced” by Tertullian. Instead, it is his purpose to emphasize the fact that early Christian writers like Tertullian, Lactantius, and Origen, members of a fringe religious minority subject to intermittent persecution for not aligning themselves with the officially established imperial cult, had not themselves lost sight of the distinction that the New Testament introduces between religious and political loyalties when it enjoins Christians to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:17–21, Mark 2:14–17; Luke 20:22–25). Their principled commitment to the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religious belief and practice would later inspire other individual Christian thinkers, even after Christianity itself had been transformed from the religion of a beleaguered minority into an officially established public religion enjoying the support of the Byzantine Empire in the East, of the later Roman Empire in the West, and of the kingdoms that succeeded it during the Latin Middle Ages and endured down into the era of the Protestant Reformation and beyond.