Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Perspectives on Religious Freedom Across Time
by Elliott Wright

The story of the concept and experience of religious freedom is highly complex, depending in large measure on time, place, and culture. A ruler in India in the third century BC recognized the equality of all faiths, but the action set no lasting precedent, not even in India. While formulating no formal policy on the issue, the Roman Empire of the first century AD allowed different religions to coexist within limits that did not always extend to Christianity. Christians have often insisted on freedom of religion for themselves but denied it to others. It is only since the 1950s that religious freedom has been considered a “universal” human right, guaranteed by international treaty, but even now that right is routinely violated in many countries.

Also, definitions on the meaning of the phrase “freedom of religion” can vary. Does it apply only to the right to believe what one will—a freedom of conscious approach—or does it carry rights of action based on faith? Does belief in a god grant the right to worship that deity openly? Is religious liberty applicable only to individuals, or does it extend to communities? Who decides?

This brief survey looks primarily at perspectives on religious freedom in Western history and culture, which gave rise to Christianity and has also shaped the assertion of religious liberty as a basic right.

The Early Years
As is clearly evident in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the young Christian movement quickly moved out of its initial Jewish context into the highly polytheistic Roman world. It was marked, as was Judaism, by its refusal to recognize the validity of other religions, which may be one reason it raised distrust among both neighbors and civil authorities. Occasional persecution of Christians—usually on local or regional levels—would continue until the early fourth century. Christians were accused of intolerance, atheism, and atrocities stemming from their monotheism and sacramental rituals. Only in the mid-third century, under Emperor Decius, was there a relatively short-lived, general persecution of Christians.
In the year 313 AD, the Roman co-emperors, Constantine and Licinius, ruled that Christianity would enjoy the same freedom afforded to other religions, although this so-called Edict of Milan did not, as sometimes wrongly assumed, make Christianity the official Roman religion. It extended religious freedom to all faiths. However, in 380 AD, one particular expression of Christianity was imposed by the Roman state on all subjects in the Edict of Thessalonica. This official faith was that of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, as summed up in the Nicene Creed. At that time, the empire and the Christian community were splintered by various interpretations of Christian faith and the civil powers were trying, in the 380 edict, to bring about uniformity and peace.

With Christianity the only legal religion, a combination of church and state authorities suppressed other faiths—as well as Christian theologies not in conformity with the official line. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, and Orthodoxy in the Eastern Empire, would drift apart, with Roman Pope and Orthodox patriarch excommunicating each other in 1095 AD. Another complicating factor was the rise of Islam in the seventh century, a faith that swept across the Middle East, conquering Jerusalem in 637 BC and putting an end to the Eastern Roman Empire with the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453.

Conformity, Dissent, and Reformation
As the Roman Empire declined in Europe in the fifth century, various Roman Catholic kingdom/states with similar structures began to emerge. Kings came to be seen as ruling by “divine right” and government functioned in close alignment with the church, which was represented by bishops and, at the top, the pope. Religious dissent was not tolerated and sometimes vigorously suppressed. Jews were especially likely to be marked for persecution. From the 11th century into the 15th, a series of Christian crusades attempted to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims.
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The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century brought the issue of religious freedom into prominent focus as Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in Switzerland, and others in Holland and England raised questions about the scriptural legitimacy of a range of Catholic practices and teachings. Not that the reformers were advocates of wholesale religious toleration—rulers still determined which church order and theological confession the people of their realms would follow.

But the door to religious diversity opened—and would, over time, grow wider, though not without conflict and bloodshed between and within nations. For example, England broke with the Vatican in the mid-16th century, only to replace the official Roman Catholic Church with the official Anglican Church, to which all people were expected to give allegiance. Only slowly would Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and various “Puritans” be allowed to openly express and practice their faith convictions.

Tension between Anglicans and Puritans over theology and liturgy was one—only one—factor in the English civil war of the mid-17th century. It was a group of Puritans, called the Pilgrims, who left England for Holland in 1608. Twelve years later they moved to what is now Massachusetts in the name of religious freedom. The Puritans in general had a narrow concept of “religious freedom.” They claimed it for themselves but withheld it from others.

England’s 1689 Act of Toleration extended religious freedom to Roman Catholics, nontrinitarians, and atheists. It was well into the 19th century before full religious liberty was attained in the country that gave rise to Methodism in the mid-1740s. John Wesley and his Methodist societies, initially part of the Anglican Church, faced no official opposition but sometimes evoked local hostility and harassment. Methodist meetings sometimes caused riots, resulting in vandalized places of worship. Wesley and his brother Charles were occasionally hauled before magistrates on charges of preaching objectionable ideas. John Wesley was finally banned from preaching from Anglican pulpits, likely as much for attacking an economic establishment that exploited the poor as for his theological inclinations.

Religious Freedom: The US and the United Nations

Religious liberty is often considered a founding principle of the United States, but of the 13 English colonies that came together to form the young nation, only two, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, upheld broad-based religious freedom. The other New England colonies had official Congregational (Puritan) churches and those to the south, Anglican churches.

Religious freedom was written into the Bill of Rights and added to the US Constitution in December 1891, but the background of this right was more political than religious. Its roots are in the 18th century European intellectual and scientific movement called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. The period actually began in the late 1600s with people such as Galileo and John Lock and extended into the early 18th century, incorporating Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Jefferson.

The American and French revolutions were inspired in large measure by enlightenment challenges to old rules and traditional ways of thinking, including those of politics and religion. Jefferson, along with other US “founding fathers,” would make one of the most successful translations of Enlightenment thinking into practical government and society. The right of people individually and collectively to decide on their own religious faith without the influence of government was one of the fundamental principles. The First Amendment to the US Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

These rights would come to be embraced, as essential to democratic society, by virtually all American religious communities. They are affirmed in the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church (The Book of Discipline 2012, Par. 164). The Bill of Rights and its affirmations pertain only to political/social rights and liberties and to limits on government. A guarantee of religious freedom says nothing about God, religious truth, or the legitimacy of any organized faith or of no faith. It leaves to each faith group the task of determining its attitude toward other religions and establishes a public forum of fair play and nonviolence.
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This neutral attitude also prevails in several United Nations’ declarations and protocols on religious freedom that build on Enlightenment thought. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

This paragraph is amplified and applied in other UN statements, notably the “Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief,” adopted in 1981 (See p. 30). Stipulated in this covenant is the right of religions to propagate through education and publication, to set up institutions, and solicit funds to support their activities.

Religious Freedom and Christian Evangelism
As a missionary faith, Christianity seeks to spread the message of Jesus Christ and invite all people into its faith community. This reality automatically raises issues of interaction with persons of other faiths who, directly or indirectly, are seen as potential disciples of Jesus via conversion. It also raises this question: Does a desire to attract a person of another faith to Christianity violate the principle of religious freedom? The question is difficult but unavoidable.

“Grace Upon Grace,” the last official United Methodist statement of mission theology adopted by the 1988 General Conference, says virtually nothing about evangelism vis-àvis relations with other faiths. Such omission would be unlikely today, 28 years later. Most Christian churches in recent years have struggled with the relationship between evangelism and the concept of religious liberty for all.

Significantly, representatives of the World Council of Churches, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance met for five years to hammer out a document on “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” published in 2011. The process came up with a dozen principles for evangelism in a world of diverse faiths, including the affirmation that “Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion, and humility, and to overcome all arrogance, condescension and disparagement (cf. Galatians 5:22)” in everything they do.

Another principle states: Christians are to acknowledge that changing one’s religion is a decisive step that must be accompanied by sufficient time for adequate reflection and preparation, through a process ensuring full personal freedom.
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United Methodist opposition to religious intolerance and general support for religious freedom is expressed in a resolution on “Globalization and Its Impact on Human Dignity,” reaffirmed at the 2016 General Conference, but the church has no official statement on the theological basis of religious freedom and how this right relates to mission and evangelism. That lack in part motivated directors of the General Board of Global Ministries to endorse a statement, “Religious Freedom: Grounded in Love,” in late 2015. (See p. 10.) While not speaking for the church as a whole, this statement finds foundation for Christian respect for other faiths in the New Testament’s love ethic—love of God and neighbor. With regard to religious freedom and evangelism, it asserts:  

In humility, we affirm that God’s love is too strong, too broad, and too deep for any of us to constrain or prescribe how God continues to work among us all. Accepting God’s grace at work in transforming our lives, we are both free and at the same time compelled to share how God’s love manifests itself in our lives and in the world today. We testify to God’s love both through sharing the good news and through our love of neighbors and love of enemies. Yet if we do not respect, honor, and listen to neighbors, and especially our enemies, we have not love.

“Religious Freedom: Grounded in Love” is fertile ground for ongoing reflection on religious liberty from a theological and missional perspective.

Elliott Wright is a journalist and consultant with the General Board of Global Ministries and a frequent contributor to New World Outlook.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, November-December 2016 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.

Protestant pilgrims are shown on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland.

PORTRAITS IN ORDER, TOP TO BOTTOM: Martin Luther, painting by Lucas Cranach, 1528; Gaius Messius Quintus Decius Augustus, Roman emperor from 249-251 CE. Marble bust from the Capitoline Museum in Italy; John Calvin.