Theological Foundations of Religious Liberty -- By: James E. Wood, Jr.

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 05:0 (NA 1972)
Article: Theological Foundations of Religious Liberty
Author: James E. Wood, Jr.

Theological Foundations of Religious Liberty

James E. Wood, Jr.


The emergence of religious liberty as a valid principle, as one of those axiomatic commitments that is almost universally recognized, is surely one of the major achievements of our time. In spite of the fact that there is overwhelming evidence to indicate that religious liberty is far from being a reality in much of today’s world, perhaps nowhere fully realized, religious liberty has become a normative principle for almost all nations and, conversely, the denial of religious liberty is virtually everywhere viewed as morally and legally invalid. Consequently, guarantees of religious liberty presently appear in most national constitutions throughout the world, including those governments committed to atheism or irreligion. While religious liberty can hardly be said to be descriptive of conditions as they are in many countries throughout the world today, there is profound significance to be found in that the concept of religious liberty has come almost universally to have normative value.

Despite this universal commitment to religious liberty, there is no universal consensus as to its basis, either between religion and secularism or among the great world religions themselves. Modern man while categorically advocating religious liberty has remained largely oblivous to its philosophical or religious bases as well as its historical roots.

This almost universal commitment to religious liberty on the one hand and the lack of any universal consensus for the basis of religious liberty on the other hand points to a real danger. In the absence of any conscious philosophical or religious basis, obviously religious liberty is simply widely supported for a variety of practical reasons. There are those, for example, who support religious liberty solely because of expediency. This is readily understandable from the perspective of the history of religion. Whenever religion has enjoyed patronage, prestige, and power it has resisted the granting of freedom in conflict with its own teachings and truths. Religious minorities throughout history have been the natural allies of religious liberty. Unfortunately, religious minorities when transformed into religious

majorities or given political or social power generally cease to be allies of religious liberty either in principle or in practice.

It is quite possible to argue for religious liberty simply on the basis that the modern secular state views religion as a private concern of its citizens and that religion has no role to play in the public and social spheres of human society. Again, the state may also embrace the idea of religious liberty simply because it holds an apathet...

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