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Christian Roots of Our Fireworks

Duncan Rawlinson

Jim Tonkowich - published on 07/03/14

Before Jefferson and Madison, there were Tertullian and Lactantius.

There are those of us who waited on pins and needles throughout the month of June for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burnwell v. Hobby Lobby, a decision that also included Conestoga Wood Products and Mardel. And the wait has been worth it. The Court announced a major victory for religious freedom just in time for the Fourth of July.

In administering the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration insisted that contraceptives, abortafacients, and sterilization be included for free in all employee health plans. This has been known as “the HHS Mandate.” The Court found that this mandate “substantially burdens the exercise of religion” for employers with sincere religious convictions about the immorality of some means of birth control. The opinion also rebuked the administration for seeking to “in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed,” something, they recognized, no government has the right to do.

More religious liberty cases will follow, but Hobby Lobby is a win for freedom and a reminder of two of freedom’s heros: Tertullian and Lactantius.

Long before John Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration, long before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and long before James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, these Christian thinkers advocated for religious freedom, the foundation of all the freedoms we enjoy today.

In the ancient world, there was no religious freedom. People worshipped the god or gods of their tribe, city, nation, or empire. Canaanites worshiped Baal. Babylonians worshipped Marduk. Israel worshipped the LORD. Romans worshipped Jupiter, Neptune, Venus, et. al. and, of course, the Divine Caesar. It was a religious, civic, and family duty to comply and those who didn’t were punished as impious and treacherous.

That was the situation of Christian in the Roman Empire. Fines, imprisonment, exile, and martyrdom were the penalties for refusing to worship the Roman gods and Christians refused.

In the midst of persecution, Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian wrote to the Roman governor of Carthage in AD 212, “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature that every man should worship according to his own convictions…” This would have come as news to the governor and anyone else who read Tertullian’s letter. This was a new idea rooted in a Christian understanding of God, the world, and human nature.

A century later Lucius Lactantius expressed the same ideas, but while Tertullian wrote a defensive letter, Lactantius advised the emperor. “For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by torture, and by doing evil,” he said, “it will not be defended but polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion…”

The result was the Edict of Milan in AD 313. That Edict did not, as some think, make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. It did something even more remarkable. It granted “to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred…” That is, it made religious freedom the law, something that had never happened before. 

Fast forward to the founding of the United States. John Locke, the English political philosopher who was so influential on our Founders, owned the works of Lactantius and Thomas Jefferson read Tertullian.

In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote “[O]ur rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.” Next to those words in his personal copy, Jefferson jotted down the quotation from Tertullian cited above, “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature that every man should worship according to his own convictions…”

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