Religious Freedom – 1700 Years after the Edict of Milan

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

At the dawn of the 21st century, religious freedom is under threat from the worst excesses of both democracy and dictatorship. The former is often linked to the moral relativism that denies any truths and reduces liberty to private choice. The latter seeks to silence religious believers and faith communities who speak out against tyranny and exploitation. Faced with this twin assault, we need a compelling critique of the forces that endanger religious freedom because – as I shall argue in this essay – the universal liberty to believe and worship is key to other human freedoms such as the liberty of conscience.

1. The Edict of Milan: meaning and legacy

2013 marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. issued by Emperor Constantine, which recognised the legitimacy of the Christian faith and granted all citizens of Rome freedom in matters of religious belief. For the first time in human history, the theocratic fusion of politics with religion was abandoned in favour of a proper distinction of religious and political authority. Building on the Jewish heritage of prophets that held kings to standards of justice and righteousness, Christianity was the first movement to distinguish religious from political power without however divorcing faith from politics.

Indeed, Christianity stripped the sovereign State and its coercive power of any sacral aura and thereby guaranteed both the secularity of politics and the autonomy of the public realm. Paradoxically, the State is ultimately provisional. Only the Church qualifies secular power and authority as something less than absolute and final. At the same time, the Church neither sacralises the State and sanctifies coercion, nor does it secularise religion and reduce faith to an instrument of political domination.

Saint John Chrysostom, a fifth-century Greek theologian, was opposed to the sacralisation of power. His critique underpins the distinction by Pope Gelasius I of the two swords – the sword of ecclesial authority and the sword of secular coercion (to which I shall return shortly). For Saint Chrysostom and Saint Augustine who both followed and developed the teaching of the Apostle Paul, secular rule is confined to the temporal saeculum – destined to pass into God’s Kingdom. It falls inside the Church insofar as it concerns justice and the orientation of human existence to the supernatural Good in God.

The distinctness of State and Church was preserved and enhanced by Pope Gelasius I who emphasised the difference between ecclesial auctoritas and secular dominium, with the former having absolute priority over the latter. That is because eternity enfolds time, and the finite realm only is to the extent that it mirrors and reflects God’s infinite being and goodness. So configured, politics and the law are secular (in the sense of belonging to the saeculum) without being divorced from religion – a unique legacy of Christendom to Europe and the world at large.

In short, the Edict of Milan is a milestone in the emergence of two key principles that we commonly associate with liberalism but which in reality we owe to Christianity – religious freedom and the secular State as founding blocks for the good governance of society.

Thus the ‘Constantinian turn’ away from Diocletian’s brutal persecution of Christians to their protection by the imperial authorities does not mark the perversion of the Christian faith but instead its right realisation. Since there is no absolute neutrality or impartiality, the question is not whether some force or power rules but whether it promotes the common good in which all can participate. The public recognition of Christianity as a legitimate faith marked the moment when the Roman Empire ceased to persecute Christians, fund pagan cults and granted all citizens of the Empire religious freedom. As such, it was a deeply democratic moment.

2. From the Edict to the present

Since its promulgation, the Edict of Milan has shaped the wider Europe and the rest of the world. From the patristic era via the Middle Ages to early modernity, the Christian tradition sought to maintain the balance between political and religious power in line with St. Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the City of God and St. Thomas Aquinas’ critique of absolute power.

But following the ‘wars of religion’, the Peace of Augsburg enshrined the principle ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ – in the Prince’s land, the Prince’s religion. Even if in practice many rulers followed the faith of their subjects, it was nevertheless the case that religion became increasingly subordinate to politics.

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia established the primacy of national sovereignty over all public affairs, including the role of faith in the political sphere, which bracketed faith out of international relations altogether. Indeed, this had the effect of replacing the city-state, the empire and the Church with national states and transnational markets – a settlement that defines the world until today.

Over time, Europe saw the rise of State religion and the central imposition of faith that was variously more religious or more secular. Indeed, religious persecution and institutions such as the Holy Inquisition were linked to the coercive powers of the modern State. By the 19th and the 20th century, the state had reduced the citizenry to ‘bare individuals’ abstracted from the relational ties of family and faith. Absent ecclesial mediation, the extremes of secular religion and fanatical faith emerged triumphant.

Faced with this twin threat that hovers over the contemporary world, modern Christian teaching on religious freedom is indispensable to upholding all civil and political liberties. Europe did not have to wait until the writings of John Locke to defend both the freedom to believe and the principle of tolerating people of all faiths or none (leaving aside the fact that Locke supported slavery and other illiberal, un-Christian causes).

From St. Paul via the Church Fathers and Doctors like St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Gregory of Palamas to modern and late modern Christian philosophers such as Ralph Cudworth and Vladimir Solovyov, Christians have rejected naturalism and individual self-sufficiency in favour of divinely ordained natural law and mutually augmenting relationships. Crucially, Christianity has defended natural rights in more reciprocal, mutualist ways that relate freedom to an objective order and shared ends binding all human beings together.

That is why Christianity in both East and West focuses so clearly on notions of dignity and personhood rather than the absolute freedom of the individual. Both dignity and personhood are relational notions that link the pursuit of natural goods in the immanent world to the quest for the supernatural Good in God. In so doing, the Christian tradition seeks to combine the promotion of a universal moral order, on the one hand, with the defence of the dignity and fundamental rights of man as a person, on the other hand.

Crucially, orthodox-catholic Christianity dismisses purely negative liberty as an idolatrous will-to-power that ends up enslaving the individual to subjective opinions and tastes which deny transcendent principles about the dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God. The idea of divine creation is the only conception of human life that protects against tyranny and promotes the freedom to search for truth, beauty and goodness. It is only in the openness to the real possibility of a personal Creator God that man can discover the gift of liberty. Beyond modern rationalism and legalism, the question of religious freedom underscores the importance of a non-secular anthropology.

On this and other issues, Christianity needs to oppose both the revival of neo-scholastic Catholic conservatism and the influence of Protestant secular liberalism by insisting on the interplay of religious faith and philosophical reason. In different yet deeply complementary ways, Russian Sophiology and the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others connects creedal Christianity to the Church Fathers and Doctors and also to the Romantic orthodoxy that avoided the extremes of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. As such, the living tradition of the Church and Christian theology cannot be chartered on our conventional conceptual map of liberal versus conservative.

3. Religious Freedom Today

The practice and reality of religious freedom across the world is worrying. Between 2000 and 2007 as many as 123 countries witnessed some form of religious persecution. State religion and blasphemy laws in countries across Asia, Africa and often with a Muslim majority undermine the pluralism which is necessary for exercising religious liberty.

Likewise, secular liberalism is marginalising Christian culture in Western Europe and the USA, using the law to limit freedom of conscience, faith-based conscientious objection and the display of religious symbols in the public sphere (including at work). It also promotes an education that instils an anthropology which runs counter to the Christian emphasis on dignity, personhood and mutually giving, loving relationships. Despite the formal separation of State and Church, the former has arrogated to itself the right to define in very restrictive ways what constitutes religious organisations – not to mention continual attempt to liberalise of both abortion and euthanasia as well as redefining marriage, as I have argued in one of my earlier essays.

This, coupled with debates about the status of new sects and the issue of freedom of conversion (e.g. from the Muslim to the Christian faith), raises three key questions for the present and the future: first, the relationship between objective truth and personal conscience; second, the coordination between State power and religious communities; third, from a Christian perspective, interpreting Christ’s universal promise of salvation in the face of religious pluralism and secular ideologies.

What is emerging very clearly is a growing conflict between the apparent neutrality of aggressive secularism and the substantive ethical visions of religious traditions. This conflict revolves around the primacy of formal procedure over substantive content and the priority of subjective rights over objective natural law. In short, religious freedom raises the question of  the common purpose and the shared ends of a polity whose members are bound together by more than simply State law or market contract.

As such, the main opposition today is between an aggressively secular culture and religious traditions, not among members of different faith groups who tend to agree on important concerns such as beginning- and end-of-life issues as well as on the importance of binding sacral practices like baptism, marriage and an education that is open to the sacred and the divine.

The modern State is neither neutral nor impartial but instead socially and culturally secular. Instead, it needs to open up spaces that enable the plural search for the common good – not formal, procedural dialogue that privileges secular reason over religious faith. Religious liberty is a relational reality, grounded in a shared humanity and forms of human association that constitute civil society which precedes both the State and the market. Ultimately, we need a political and cultural pluralism that can blend personal freedom with the quest for objective truth – though standards of truth will always be contested in a multi-faith context.


The Edict of Milan granted both religious freedom to all and enshrined the principle of a secular State without an official religion. As such, the promulgation of the edict 1700 years ago has universal signification for the wider Europe and the rest of the world.

In some sense Christianity – as the fusion of secular politics with religious freedom – either underpins pluralism or else faces discrimination. With the discrimination and persecution of Christians, society loses religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms. There is no purely secular, neutral middle ground.