Old Testament Israel operated as a theocracy under Mosaic Law, with the success or failure of the nation relying simply on the extent of the people’s obedience, or otherwise, to God. Under the direct rule of God, the notion of religious freedom did not arise. God commanded His people to care for the stranger or foreigner in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:19). In the case of the Gibeonites, there was the extra protection of a special covenant or treaty (Joshua 9:3-27). However, under the God-ordained rule of state (Romans 13:3-4) in the Church age religious freedoms must be established and preserved through a constitution and the rule of law.
American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently announced that a ministerial meeting to “advance religious freedom” will be hosted by the Department of State on 25 and 26 July. Mr Pompeo’s announcement affirmed a commitment to religious liberty as a founding principle of the US, as articulated in the first amendment, and also as a “universal human right”. The global intentions for the meeting, to promote religious freedom internationally via US foreign policy, are underscored in the former CIA director’s call to identify “concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all”.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” US Constitution, Amendment 1
Many Christians may welcome the Trump administration’s call to defend freedom of religious belief and expression. However, a note of caution or even alarm sounds when governments, particularly with the global trade interests and military weight of the US, declare this kind of campaign. Invoking the cause of religious freedom as a pretext for intervening in the affairs of foreign nations is a risk that history begs us not to ignore.
America’s first president, George Washington, gave thoughtful articulation to a universal concept of religious freedom and stressed carefully the right of freedom of conscience for those of any religion or none. Although clearly this didn’t yet include individual human rights, that came much later with the abolition of slavery. In his letter to the Virginia Baptists he said, “Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” He was also only too well aware of the potential danger of undermining the liberties of other nations in the context of pursuing political interests abroad.
In 1775, Washington’s Congress ordered the invasion of British-controlled Quebec. The ill-fated attack was an attempt to unite the strongly Catholic Quebec with the rebellion of American colonies against the British. In a letter to Colonel Benedict Arnold ordering him to attack British forces in Quebec City, Washington charged him to consider that his troops were marching through the territory not of an enemy but “of friends and brethren” and cautioned him, “to avoid all disrespect or contempt of the religion of the country … While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others...” George Washington, then Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, was happy to act militarily to defend the interests of the soon-to-be-created United States. But he firmly stood up for the religious freedom of those on all sides.
The year 313 marked the end of the persecution of the early Christian Church. After a time of divided rule in the Roman Empire, Constantine became sole Emperor. The internal struggles for power saw Constantine wavering in his faith in the gods of Rome and turning to the God of the Christians for help. Eusebius writes of Constantine’s vision of a cross with the words in Greek “In this sign, conquer” and his adoption of the cross emblem before his victory at Milvian Bridge. While his predecessors had persecuted Christians, Constantine favoured them – but for political ends.
In becoming a defender of the Christian faith, Constantine politicised it. This backfired disastrously for Christians in the Persian Empire, when Constantine wrote to Persian Emperor Shapur II, a former enemy, who was seeking to gain favour with Rome. In his letter, Constantine sought protection for the Christian minority in Persia, present day Iran, complementing Shapur on his “accustomed humanity and kindness”. But Emperor Shapur became suspicious of the Christians under his rule, who were also prophesying the fall of Persia, and feared a “fifth-column” with covert allegiance to Rome, would rise up against him in his own land. This eventually triggered the Great Persecution of 339 when a multitude of Christians, too great to be counted, were martyred.
Many Christians are, rightly, deeply concerned about religious freedom. And around the world, it is clear that Christianity and other minority religions are under pernicious attack and persecution in many countries. In a society profoundly altered by the sharp rise of liberal humanist ideologies during the Clinton-Obama era, alongside a creeping intolerance of traditional values, the support given by many American Christians to Donald Trump during his election campaign significantly rested on his pledges to defend freedom of religion in America. We pray that President Trump will not duplicate Constantine’s fatal error of – deliberately or inadvertently – weaponising religious freedom to advance the political interests of his Empire. If Christian religious liberty becomes a “Trojan horse” to further vested secular interests, untold harm to minority religious groups could be the result.