It’s often been claimed that it was the intolerance of Christians, from the apostle Paul to the Renaissance Popes, that led to the Enlightenment’s secular cry for “freedom of religion” – and even for freedom from religion. The secularist assumption is that religion fosters bigotry, and violence towards those who are different, and that its enlightened secular thought that fosters peace and pluralism.
But is all that actually true? Are there in fact Christian origins to the concept of freedom of religion?
On his podcast Undeceptions, John Dickson (an Australian Christian author, speaker, historian, and media presenter) interviews Professor Robert Louis Wilken (an emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia) on the historic origins of freedom of religion. In contrast to the common perception that religious freedom was a secular Enlightenment idea, Wilken shows that religious freedom originated back in 312 through Constantine the first Christian Roman Emperor. Constantine declared: “Freedom and full liberty has been granted in accordance with the peace of our times to exercise free choice in worshipping as each one has seen fit. This has been done by us so that nothing may seem to be taken away from anyone’s honour or from any religion whatsoever.”
Dickson expands on this topic in his recent book, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History:
“Where did Constantine get this idea of religious liberty for all? Most of us, all these years later, take for granted that the state will grant complete freedom in spiritual matters. But for most of history, in most parts of the world, this simply was not the case. Religion was seen as too important to the health of society not to be regulated. The significance of religion lay mainly in that it secured prosperity for the state and victory over enemies, so long as the gods were duly honoured by the people….We do not have to speculate about where Constantine got his relatively “enlightened” views about religion outlined in the Edict of Milan. Two Christian thinkers had made a striking case for religious liberty well before Constantine defeated Maxentius and proclaimed himself a Christian. One of them was in the distant past, but his writings were still well known. The other became one of Constantine’s confidants.”
Check out Dickson’s book or podcast if you would like to know who these two Christian thinkers were.