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.

By Daniel Juster

Dan Juster leads the overall ministry Tikkun International. Donate to Tikkun International.

Let us know what you think - why not comment to this article. The authors of these articles are often involved in intense ministry and are thus unable to respond to most comments. As is normal with print and online magazines, Tikkun reserves the right to publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.
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01:20 31Jan11 Dale -
The development from selfishness to the Mind of Christ proceeds from egocentric through ethnocentric through world-centric into integral perspectives and beyond in the pursuit of the truth that sets us free to enjoy the freedom in Yeshua Ha'Mahshiach. Good education and education about "the good" is a necessary prerequisite but difficult achievement in a post-modern pluralistic culture which tries to abandon the notion of "good and evil" and ends up with narcissism.

14:09 31Jan11 Suzanna -
I praise God I was brought up in a little country Baptist church where my pastor father made this principle clear. We learned it this way: "We believe in the right of every person to answer to their own conscience, according to the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Yeshua ha Mashiach). This of course expresses the 'freedom of religion' for all messianic or christian believers, but the principle can and should influence our whole communities in a spirit of love backed by obedience to Jesus' words, that we now call 'evangelism'. Yet living in today's world ehere Yeshua's prophetic word about "the increase of wickedness" may require us not to grow cold in our faith, even unto death. We so much rejoice in all God is doing in the messianic movement in Israel and elsewhere!

20:07 31Jan11 db -
In America, I think we sometimes forget that religious freedom, as dwindling as it may be, is a privilege. However, we must also be ready to embrace the time when religious freedom will no longer be tolerated by other religions or by an atheistic world view. We must hold on to the simple truths that Yeshua taught knowing that one day his kingdom will finally manifest in this world. Let us be patient in the hour of affliction.

14:01 01Feb11 bd -
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with an outstretched arm demonstrated this supreme choice: "Choose this day whom you will serve." I set before you Life and Death ... choose therefore Life! He even let the foreigners choose too and we were included without partiality. And just for good measure ... if Baal is god, then serve him. Now that God believes in Freedom!

23:18 01Feb11 Michael Haas -
Your belief that your "stand for human rights in this land and true religious freedom, will further the Gospel of the Kingdom in Israel" presents great hope.

12:59 02Feb11 Hugo Ortega -
In America, where freedom is supposedly celebrated, we allow for all sorts of practices and personal beliefs to be the norm. Those who believe in the one true God are vilified as being exclusionary. Therefore laws are being enacted that do away with the belief in the one true God and celebrate our humanity where "anything goes." Where is the moral basis? The state can not be our moral judge. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can lay any claim in that respect because He knows who we are and that we are in need of moral boundaries in our lives. That is why He sent His only son, Yeshua, to live the life we could not live. In Him we live and have our being, let us celebrate that. For there is no hope other than the hope and future that He has promised us from the beginning of time.

13:42 03Feb11 Arbie -
I feel that "religious liberty" seems narrowly defined here, i.e. advocating almost singularly for freedom of religion for those who believe as you believe, or on behalf of those whose beliefs are not far removed from yours. But do you recognize religious liberty as applying to people whose religious views are more distant or in opposition to yours, such as agnostics and atheists? This is where I fear most Christians' concept of religious liberty breaks down. In all honesty, it appears that they are often fighting for their ability to dominate society, as is evidenced by comments such as Hugo's. Freedom of religion so long as you believe in the God of the Bible. No ill intent meant in my comment, but I would like to point out how it appears from my perspective.

  -- Dr Juster replies: On the contrary. I do accept the religious liberty of agnostics and atheists as did the Founding Fathers. Their view, however, was that if atheism prevailed it would be very bad for democracy because it would not produce the people of character needed for a democratic republic. However, this was not to be solved by oppression but in the market place of ideas. The only orientations that should be suppressed are those that want to destroy liberty and replace the system with tyranny. The founders were clear on this too. So one does not have to have liberty for Nazi or radical jihadists. The harder question is how much freedom should be given to free expression. The consensus up through the 1950s was quite balanced. They did not extend this to pornography and entertainment that motivated people to the destruction of family life. One could argue for such liberal views, but could not practice prostitution, or the promotion of pornography. In addition, the founders, while giving athiests full liberty and citizenship did also think that the state should acknowledge God and his law as fitting to have the blessing of God. It is amazing how much they got it right.

14:40 04Feb11 Millard Jackson -
I really appreciated this look back at the origins of religious freedom. I find it especially helpful in understanding how impossible it will always be to accomodate/embrace the Muslim point of view. I say this regarding problems in the Middle East as well as the assimilation process that is becoming so evident in America. I do regret the human fallacies of those Jews who have fallen prey to a wrong view of things. However, perhaps of greater import for the immediate crisis is the subtle and growing pressure that true religious cooperation can conceivably be had between Muslims and non-Muslims. Surely we are being duped ... This article gives me much grist for my mill.

02:21 12Feb11 Grieve -
Having never lived in America my comments regarding her past would be written in ignorance, but I wish to comment on religious freedom. Intellect is a wonderful gift from above, however the heart of man tends to sway the minds of men towards reason rather than righteousness. The Book of Revelation gives us a view of the religious freedom we will enjoy in the future; 19vs11, "... in righteousness He judges and makes war ..."; vs15, "... He will rule with a rod of iron ..." Beware of religious freedom; the criteria is righteousness not reason; as we become one with Him, we willingly lay down our reason and will and in so doing become truly free. Are the believers who continue to sin free? Is any man free without Christ, no! There will be no religious freedom in the Kingdom of Messiah ... we should be doing His will on earth, as it is done in Heaven. To juggle with religious freedom is to entertain anarchy.

17Feb11 13:44 Jonathan -
For the sake of 'religious liberty', should defamation of any religion/faith be tolerated?

  -- Dr Juster replies: Yes, for the sake of religious liberty defamation should be tolerated. One man's defamation may be another's legitimate criticism. However, incitement to violence, literally calling on people to do violent acts, should be proscribed.

Also in this issue of the newsletter:

Eitan Shishkoff: What to Expect in 2011
Marty Shoub: "You Will Never Walk Again!"
Asher Intrater: Destiny for the Church of Spain