Christianity and Liberty?
Roger Williams University
Baylor President Ken Starr sent forth "Thanksgiving Blessings from Baylor" (November 20, 2013) to current and former students, so I received one and was greatly interested in a couple of paragraphs on religious freedom:
The early English settlers in the New World included Roger Williams. Founder of the State of Rhode Island and co-founder of the first Baptist church in America, Williams stood as a bold early champion of religious freedom. As tirelessly advocated by that great Christian leader and patriot, the principles of "soul liberty" and freedom of conscience have for centuries served as bedrock tenets of Baptist thought. These foundational principles deeply inform Baylor's rich history and mission. Today, nearly 375 years after Roger Williams founded that congregation in New England, religious freedom remains an essential attribute of personal liberty and human dignity. At Baylor, we are fully committed to maintaining and deepening the culture of freedom. Tragically, that culture is in danger around the world.But I wonder how deeply Biblical this religious liberty is. President Starr himself acknowledges a spotty history of Christianity on this issue in his op-ed piece, "The triple tragedy of Christian persecution in Middle East" (Dallas Morning News, November 10, 2013):
Next month, I will have the high privilege of participating in an international conference concerning Christianity's role in the never-ending struggle for religious liberty. The conference -- entitled "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives" -- will be held in Rome. Organized by Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project and co-sponsored by Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, the global conference will explore Christianity's contributions to human freedom in the face of two millennia of strenuous opposition and cruel persecution. As we look ahead to this internationally significant conference, I was honored to have the opportunity recently to author an opinion piece on this very topic, published in the Dallas Morning News. The op-ed addresses the upcoming conference, the cause of religious freedom more generally, and the here-and-now persecution globally of the Christian church. This is a topic of profound importance to our hurting world and to all who lift up the ideal of religious liberty. In the spirit of Roger Williams, let us rededicate ourselves to these noble, deeply Biblical principles.
Christians have brought to the Middle East and elsewhere the ideas and institutions of freedom. While Christianity has its own mixed history, it has in the modern era championed equality under the law, economic opportunity and religious freedom for all people.But the crucial question is: Has Christianity championed these because they are Biblical . . . or because they are modern? Presumably, this very question will be broached at the conference President Starr refers to, "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," and for more on that conference to be held in Rome this coming December, go to Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project, which likewise acknowledges Christianity's spotty record:
The Christianity and Freedom Project is timed to coincide with the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan of 313 CE, which officially granted religious freedom to adherents of all faiths throughout the Roman Empire. This initiative will catalyze scholarly exploration and focus global attention on our hypothesis: that Christianity has made important contributions to defining and promoting freedom. The project and its research will fully recognize that Christianity has had a mixed record concerning freedom and human rights. Its broad objective is to explore critically the ways in which Christianity has fostered civic innovation and political and economic progress even -- or especially -- in the face of opposition. Although other religious and non-religious traditions have also made important contributions to the development of freedom, we believe Christianity's contributions in history and in the contemporary world have not received adequate scholarly and public attention, and therefore merit focused investigation.The Edict of Milan under the emperor Constantine in 313 did promulgate religious freedom to all, but as the Church gained strength, and Christianity became the Roman Empire's official religion under the emperor Theodosius I in 380, religious freedom began to decrease, with Christians becoming the persecutors of other religions.
Christianity's record on freedom is therefore spotty in deed and spotty indeed . . .