The Solid, Slightly Out-of-Season Christian Case for Religious Liberty

Apr 12, 2019 by

Robert Wilken’s new book convincingly demonstrates that the concept of religious freedom has its origins in Christianity. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, that may actually be viewed as an argument against religious freedom.

In ascertaining what an author is trying to do, it can be helpful to figure out what he is trying to undo. In other words, what is he writing against?

In Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, historian Robert Wilken tells us at the outset what his primary target is: he aims to debunk the view that the commitment to religious freedom originated during the Enlightenment in opposition to an inherited Christianity that was “inescapably intolerant and . . . prone to violence.” Whether this is the most eligible target today is open to question, but the view Wilken opposes in this book is surely familiar. It might be said to be the official story in American constitutional jurisprudence, having been served up in Everson v. Board of Education, the seminal modern Establishment Clause case. The view remains common enough in popular and even academic discourse. It is a view worth refuting.

Wilken does refute it, decisively. He demolishes the notion that religious freedom was created by Enlightenment rationalism and persuasively shows that it was grounded in longstanding Christian ideals. He himself downplays this achievement: he hopes, he says, “sketchily” to provide “some background” for understanding the modern developments. This description is unduly modest, I think. To be sure, Wilken’s book is short—it is closer to being a survey than a comprehensive history—and his thesis is hardly novel. Even so, he amply demonstrates, on the basis of numerous well-selected examples and episodes, that the central ideas that animated leading modern proponents of religious freedom are traceable back to ancient and early modern Christian sources.

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