Arts & Culture & Public Square

Apples, Bananas, and the Truth about the Origins of Religious Liberty

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A recent cable TV ad shows a series of scenes with bananas where apples normally should be—children bobbing for bananas, a textbook with Isaac Newton getting hit on the head with a banana, a New York City T-shirt called “The Big Banana,” and even a Renaissance painting depicting Eve offering Adam a banana. The scene quickly shifts to a live shot of a young woman biting into an apple and then a caption that reads “Lies can become truth, if we let them.”

The ad, released before the mid-term elections last year, is highly political but raises an important point. In our postmodern “truth-is-what-you-say-it-is culture,” there are some who believe they can determine what truth is, or what lies are in this case, for the rest of us. Lies can actually never become truth. People may believe a lie even unknowingly, but that still does not make it true.

Modern-Day Stories

Where we have actually seen lies become so-called truth is in higher education today. There is a common narrative accepted as historical fact by many academics today that attributes modern western political thought, including the rise of religious freedom, to a process of secularization in Europe during the seventeenth century called the “Great Separation.”

Mark Lilla describes this event in his book The Stillborn God:

Something happened—or rather, many things happened, and their combined force would eventually bring the reign of political theology to an end in Europe. A Great Separation took place, severing Western political philosophy from cosmology and theology. It remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.

This story of the “Great Separation” begins in medieval and Renaissance Europe where everything was informed by Christian thought and seen in the context of the scriptures’ call to live our lives based on God’s design and desire. As the story goes, by the end of the sixteenth century, this worldview begins to erode and by the seventeenth century totally collapses.

This tectonic shift was supposedly driven by many events across multiple disciplines. Distressed by the horrors of the Wars of Religion, philosophers rejected the claims of biblical authority and saw religion as inherently dangerous to civil peace.

This intellectual upheaval was fueled by new scientific discoveries and the strident philosophical skepticism of men like Montaigne and Charron. In fact, it is this separation, we are told, that is responsible for producing the distinctive features of modern European thought, including (but by no means limited to) its notion of individual rights, the role of the state, and religious tolerance (as opposed to religious liberty).

We are told these innovations could not appear on the scene until religion had effectively been sequestered from the public square. According to the narrative, the ideas of individual rights, freedom of conscience, religious tolerance and limited, constitutional government are the singular achievement of the seventeenth century. This narrative has been widely taught since then, and by some accounts, modernity itself emerged from this great separation.

Today, these Enlightenment ideas are so widely accepted that, for many, it is difficult to imagine any other way of seeing the world. But is this narrative true?

The Truth Behind the Story

The rise of these important ideas did not originate from the Enlightenment but instead arose from the teaching of the holy scriptures as understood throughout the history of the church. The theme of religious freedom can be traced to the teachings of the early church fathers and was then revisited and reaffirmed by the reformers and applied by America’s founders to the creation of a new nation.

Religious freedom is important for all Americans, not just American Christians. And it’s important not just because it’s in the Constitution. It’s important because the principles that support religious freedom flow from God’s word. True religious liberty provides the freedom to live and work within a Christian worldview seven days a week, fulfilling God’s call in our families, churches, communities, and vocations.

Leading historians are rediscovering the unappreciated role of Christianity in the development of basic human rights and freedoms from early church fathers through today. Timothy Shah, in his introduction to Christianity and Freedom, writes:

These include radical notions of dignity and equality, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, limited government, consent of the governed, economic liberty, autonomous civil society, and church-state separation, as well as more recent advances in democracy, human rights, and human development.

Seeds of Truth

While there certainly is no straight line from the early church fathers through the Reformation to today, scholars are documenting how the seeds of freedom sowed by men like the early church father Tertullian produced fruit in James Madison’s American republic. Two excellent examples of books that are setting the record straight in this area are Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic and Os Guinness’s new book, Last Call for Liberty.

The problem of truth-twisting is not a new one. In the Bible, we read Jesus’ testimony to Pilate shortly before his crucifixion, “I have come into the world, to testify to the truth” and Pilate’s cynical response, “What is truth?”  (John 18:37-38).

The Apostle Paul brings great clarity to this issue in Romans 1 when he declares that men have exchanged the truth for a lie (Rom. 1:25). While knowing the truth, fallen man wants to believe he can find his own truth apart from God. The problem is that unless God is the starting point, it is impossible to understand the world around us. Truth is not a consensual cultural construct, it is not subjective…it is the self-expression of God himself.

Editor’s note: Read more about the real origins of religious freedom in Hugh Whelchel’s recent paper, “The Rise of Religious Freedom and How It Shaped the Political Theology of the United States.”

Religious freedom is essential for human flourishing and living out the biblical meaning of work. Read more about IFWE’s current project on religious freedom. 

  • Like it! Also I recommend Larry Seidentop’s Inventing the Individual.

  • Duane Covrig

    Yes, well said. The religious influence for freedom came from deep within Christianity. As Paul noted,”where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17) and in Paul’s gracious appeal, “if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.” (Phil 3:15). Sadly, the Enlightenment and Humanist critique of late Medieval Christianity infighting was legitimate.

    Woodberry’s 2012 classic study of Christian missionaries influence on democracy shows the power of real freedom as Conversionary Protestants (CP) had much deeper impact on freedom because of the emphasis on informed adult choice.

    Nick Miller traces also the Religious Roots of the First Amendment in his Oxford book by that title. The private right of judgment is crucial.

    The question remains: Will evangelicals continue this joyful march of freedom or take up a more militant and political march and embrace the coercion of some early Christian and even Magisterial Protestant groups. Peter’s dagger is always close by for too many of us Christians!!!

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