Brunner on Religious Freedom and the Church’s Hypocrisy

I’m reading Justice and the Social Order (1945) by Christian theologian Emil Brunner, and I thought the following passage was quite good and just wanted to share it. He’s writing in the setting of the WWII era, but the message is worth reading for today’s Christians:

“The right to liberty is an integral part of that order in which God the Creator has placed man, which God gives to man within the world. What is usually called “religious toleration” is not the freedom of faith – that is a thing which the state can neither give nor take, which it neither can or needs to guarantee. But human injustice and tyranny, and the power to enforce them, can deprive man of the free practice of this faith, the freedom of the cultus, of religious activity, and can, on the other hand, force upon man a religious practice which is against his conscience. Hence we might call this particular right, the right to the free practice of a religion, “religious toleration,” the most fundamental of all rights to freedom, since it approximates most closely to the true freedom of faith, even though it was not the first to appear in history. It is nevertheless significant that the state guarantee of this right should have been the starting-point of the general recognition of the rights of man by the state. It certainly took the church a long time to realize the error into which it had fallen during the growth of the Church of the Roman Empire, namely that of attempting to achieve religious uniformity by force, and to become converted to the principle of religious toleration. For more than a thousand years, the church believed itself bound to protect the true faith by state coercion. It had tried to do better than the Creator himself, who gave to man, with his freedom, the right to fall into error. Where man does not possess the outward freedom to throw in his lot with error, he cannot in true freedom throw in his lot with truth. When a mistaken zeal robs man of the outward freedom of choice by forcing on him a particular form of worship and punishing any expression of a faith which deviates from ecclesiastical rule, faith is at once endangered, the very faith which was to be safeguarded by this mistaken compulsion. It took many centuries to struggle against a tyranny which had become intolerable before man secured this most vital right. The church which today protests, and rightly so, against the oppression it suffers at the hands of the totalitarian state, would do well to remember who first set the state the bad example of religious intolerance by using the secular arm to safeguard by force what can only spring from a free act of the will. The church should always bethink itself with shame that it was the first teacher of the totalitarian state at nearly every point.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.