Religious Coercion and Liberty of Conscience


Genuine religious liberty is one of the most remarkable legacies of the United States. We often do not appreciate that this legacy is of recent origin. We look in vain though history for another state, country or community whose laws enshrined genuine religious liberty. Here is a little background.

Liberty and the Ancient World

In all ancient cultures, religious order and governmental authority were tied together. The gods of one’s tribe were tied to ancestors, to the chief of the tribe, and to the elders. They were totally intertwined. The idea of any separation was not on the horizon of human consciousness. Some Greek philosophers questioned and sometimes even mocked the common religious ideas of their day. However, the people were still expected to show loyalty to the city or polis by participating in temple rights and sacrifices. It was part of civic duty.

Rome practiced a high degree of toleration for different sects and beliefs, but only within limits. Again, one was expected to show loyalty to the gods of the State and the polis whatever else one might do in addition. As the cult of the emperor became normative, the peoples of the empire were expected to engage in religious ceremony acknowledging the lordship and divinity of Caesar. The fact that Judaism was given liberty from the cult of the empire was quite amazing. They were only required to offer a sacrifice for (rather than to) the emperor.

Liberty and Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel was a theocracy and was not enjoined to religious liberty. All Israelites were required to be loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sojourners and strangers in their midst were to show respect to the God of Israel and not engage in foreign practices on Israeli soil. The prophets of Baal were to be killed as in the days of Elijah. False prophets and even entire cities that practiced idolatry were to be destroyed.

The Origins of Religious Liberty

So what is the origin of religious liberty? It began, I believe with the Messianic Jewish community of the first century and was a foundation of early Christianity. In Acts 5, the religious authorities commanded the Apostles to not preach and teach in the name of Yeshua. Instead, the Apostles declared that they had to obey God rather than man, and that they could not but speak what they had seen and heard. Their refusal to accept the command of the Sanhedrin asserted their right to uphold their convictions of conscience above and against the authorities. Their appeal to God’s authority over the Sanhedrin demonstrated that the ruling was unjust and therefore any persecution for disobedience to the ruling was unjust.

When “the way” spread to the nations and included Gentiles, this assertion of religious liberty became more pronounced. Followers of Yeshua declared that He was Lord, a challenge to the very idea that Caesar was Lord. Christians in the Roman Empire thus asserted two freedoms of conscience: to declare Yeshua is Lord and to deny that Lordship to Caesar. They also asserted that their persecution was unjust. The implications of this are enormous. Daniel Boyarin, an Orthodox Jewish scholar at Berkeley, California, argues that our idea of religion as a system of beliefs, ethics and practices that a person can choose from among a number of options, was an invention of Christianity. Eventually Judaism as well was redefined. For almost 300 years Christians asserted this right of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. We do not have any evidence as to how they thought the state should be organized were their faith to triumph.

The Origins of a State Church

When Constantine became a Christian, sincerely or feigned, he made Christianity the preferred religion of the empire. Other religions were still tolerated. However, 50 years later Christianity became the official state religion and other religions were suppressed. Not until the 17th century do we find a state that practiced true religious liberty.

The Modern Origin of Religious Liberty

In the 17th century, the Baptist pastor Roger Williams surveyed the results of European religious wars and the violation of conscience in Puritan colonies. He wrote many tracts against the wars and bloody persecutions. For Williams, there was to be a separation of civil government from church government. Williams founded Rhode Island, the first state to enshrine genuine religious freedom. As in the U.S. constitution, there was genuine religious liberty. For Williams the conscience must not be constrained, because true religion requires freedom of conscience, including the right to seek to persuade others of one’s beliefs or lack thereof. This was revolutionary.

Williams and the founding fathers of the United States did not interpret this separation to mean that the State would not acknowledge God’s basic law and their accountability to God. It was an institutional separation. It was assumed that a Judeo-Christian framework would be foundational for the state. The law provided limits to liberty in such matters as for example, child sacrifice, or perverted religious sexual practices, prostitution, and child sexual abuse (all of which happens in some religions). It was difficult for societies to come to the view of Williams. They saw the intertwining of church and state as necessary for social order. Furthermore, when toleration was finally granted in the United Kingdom, there was still a favored state church. It was only recently that the Roman Catholic Church officially affirmed genuine religious freedom as taught in the tradition of Roger Williams.

Religious Liberty Today

Today we live in a difficult situation where true religious freedom is not defended. We see this in the attempt to blame the evangelists for the persecution they receive in other cultures. We see this among the Hindus who fear the loss of their religious caste system. However, the greatest religious coercion and violation of human rights is in the Muslim World where true religious freedom does not exist in a single Muslim country. In all these cases, loyalty to tribe and cast supersedes a person’s right to search for the truth and their right to persuade others. I believe it is crucial for young adults to have the right to search and to confirm the beliefs and practices that their parents and congregation have conveyed to them. Some are so sure that they do not know such a need, but those who do so search and confirm will have a strong faith. The standards we support are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Liberty and the Jewish Community

Our situation in the Jewish community is also one where coercion seeks to restrict conscience. We see this in the Israeli Interior Ministry that attempts to block Messianic Jews from citizenship. We see it in harassment from the same department by withholding passports and services. The ultra-orthodox have demonstrated against congregations, sometimes with vandalism and borderline violence. One individual bombed a Messianic Jewish home, terribly injuring a young person. The idea that the family and community will reject you for your beliefs is a type of religious coercion that should have no place in the modern world. Yet this is pervasive in the Jewish world. We Jews think we are sophisticated, but are sometimes so given to tribalism.

In Israel, Messianic Jews are taking up the cause of genuine human rights. One of my friends there is an accomplished lawyer who is championing human rights for many groups – not only for Messianic Jews. Many secular Jews in Israel appreciate this. I believe that our stand for human rights in this land, and true religious freedom, will further the Gospel of the Kingdom in Israel.