Public Square

Religious Freedom in the Roman Empire & the United States

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Knowing history always provides a wider perspective.

In particular, I’ve noticed that the state of religious freedom in the United States has remarkable similarities to that of the Roman Empire. Notably, citizens of both experience great religious freedom at a national level, but considerable pressure at the local level to celebrate all religions and to not be impious. 

Religious Liberty

Religion was ever present in the Roman empire, including not only a pantheon of deities but also the Imperial cult tied to the highest levels of government. Roman citizens enjoyed a wide latitude of religious liberty primarily because the Imperial government only restricted practices that were inherently egregious or inconsistent with public order. 

In theory, the United States and the European Union also provide an equal or greater degree of religious liberty through positively specified rights enshrined in foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Just as in the Roman Empire, however, this does not include the whole story of informal pressure on religious liberty at the local level. 

Local civic leaders held dual roles as priests to city deities, members of vocational guilds venerated specific patron gods, and the household gods revered by families were augmented by personal gods. Since individual deities did not necessarily have written moral codes of conduct or standardized cultic practices, disparate and even contradictory assertions seem to have been tolerated between these levels of gods. 

In the same way, religious practices in the United States, broadly defined, are as vibrant as ever even though formal weekly attendance at mainline Protestant denominations has been declining for about a century. Instead Americans pursue yoga classes grounded on fundamentally religious presuppositions, as well as CrossFit and Soul Cycle which effectively models the mutual encouragement and life sharing which have been a part of Christian congregational life. 

Political debates online and in-person are increasingly taking on characteristics formerly associated with religious zeal. From this perspective, climate change activism, advocacy for abortion, and promotion for LGBTQ+ agendas in practice are religions similar to the first century, not to mention adherence to vegetarian, pescatarian, ova-pescatarian, vegan, and many paleo diets. The United States is not becoming a nation of religious “nones,” but rather a collection of religious “manys.” 

As in Rome, all of these religious pursuits are still carried out in an overlapping style with little concern for internal contradictions, and disparate and contradictory assertions between these religious practices are generally tolerated. 

Individual Freedom

Romans committed to Stoic philosophy highly valued individual autonomy and freedom. They sought to achieve this by muffling any desire for things beyond personal control and particularly by suppressing the fear of death. The goal of this monumental internal effort was to be free of any external coercion and pain associated with loss of things beyond one’s control. 

In the United States, individual autonomy and freedom are also highly valued. This freedom is pursued not only through seeking political mandates but also through asserting the rights to choose one’s own gender, controlling sexual traits through hormones and surgery, and in choosing the freedom to pursue a variety of forms of marriage. Even the fear of death is mitigated through a Disney-like belief in a broader circle of life, and the pain of funerals is increasingly diverted by creative final arrangements. Such “fun” funerary arrangements include having the carbon from cremated remains of loved ones pressed into jewelry, having cremated remains incorporated into the explosive shells of a final fireworks display, or interment of the body in a sports-logoed casket with vibrant team colors.

External Freedom

Another striking similarity is that the written records of the Romans revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the tenants and goals of Christianity, and this error seems to continue to the modern-day. As proconsul Pliny discovered through torture, the Christians in the first century were committed to revering Christ as a god, to being faithful and kind, and to not committing fraud, theft, or adultery. 

The irony continues into the 21st century as Christians are formally and informally persecuted, yet followers of Christ advocate for religious liberty for every person. Christians believe in the freedom of conscience for everyone, and therefore only seek to persuade through reason and loving actions. Evangelical Christians believe in the freedom of practice of all forms of religion, not just in the pew or in the heart, but also in the public square. Even the architecture of the historically-Christian America reveals that there are many more Islamic mosques for Muslims in the United States than there are Christian churches in, for example, Saudi Arabia.

Christians also accept that the central principles of every religion can be publicly taught. Such teaching would show some commonalities in areas like loving one’s neighbor, but also expose fundamental differences over the character of God and the ultimate goal of life. Despite historical errors to the contrary, Christians who can freely follow biblical teaching are actually the greatest advocates for religious liberty. 

Internal Freedom

Further, Christianity encourages not just external freedom to believe and practice in public, but also internal freedom from slavery to sin through the blood of Jesus Christ. People trusting in Christ are set free to serve others and to experience the flourishing of being who they were created to be in relationship to God. This renewed connection to God provides the autonomy and personal freedom so highly desired by Roman Stoic philosophy.

Also, Jesus Christ conquered death at the cross and demonstrated this reality through his resurrection three days later. His offer of eternal life can free anyone from the fear of death, which surpasses the wildest hopes of the Stoic philosophers. Further, the church of Jesus Christ provides fellowship, encouragement, and accountability that surpasses the camaraderie of any first-century city deity or a 21st century sports team.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019). Save $10, while supplies last! Order here.

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