Religious Liberty Versus Religious Toleration

The next essay in North’s book is Religious Liberty Versus Religious Toleration by Rousas John Rushdoony. The opening paragraphs frame the issue of tolerance versus liberty like something written today even thought it was written over 30 years ago during Ronald Reagan’s first administration.

ONE of the areas of profound ignorance today is religious liberty and the meaning thereof. The common pattern throughout history, including in the Roman Empire, has been religious toleration, a very different thing.

In religious toleration, the state is paramount, and, in every sphere, its powers are totalitarian. The state is the sovereign or lord, the supreme religious entity and power. The state decrees what and who can exist, and it establishes the terms of existence. The state reserves the power to license and tolerate one or more religions upon its own conditions and subject to state controls, regulation, and supervision.

The Roman Empire believed in religious toleration. It regarded religion as good for public morale and morals, and it therefore had a system of licensure and regulation. New religions were ordered to appear before a magistrate, affirm the lordship or sovereignty of Caesar, and walk away with a license to post in their meeting-place.

The early church refused licensure, because it meant the lordship of Caesar over Christ and His church. The early church refused toleration, because it denied the right of the state to say whether or not Christ’s church could exist, or to set the conditions of its existence. The early church rejected religious toleration for religious liberty.