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.
Over the centuries, both Catholics and then Protestants often fought for religious liberty. Over the centuries also, the churches too often capitulated to religious toleration, with very evil results. Toleration was productive of fearful evils. First, one church was tolerated and established by the state, not by Christ, as the "privileged" or state-tolerated institution. This "privilege" called for concessions to the state.
These took a variety of forms. It could mean that the state appointed or controlled the bishops (Protestant or Catholic). It meant that only the state could give permission for a meeting of the church's national convocation or general assembly. In a variety of ways, establishment meant an establishment under the state's control. At its best, the church was turned into a privileged house-slave; at its worst, the church was simply a part of the bureaucracy, and the working pastors were rare and alone. Sooner or later, an establishment meant subservience and bondage to the state.
Second, the tolerated church became a parasite, because it was dependent too often on state aid to collect its tithes and dues. It lived, not because of the faith of the people, but because of the state's subsidy. As a result, the state church served the state, not the Lord, nor the Lord's people. (When the states turned humanistic and, losing interest in their captive churches, began to cut their "privileges" and subsidies, revivals broke out in many established churches as a result!)
Third, the tolerated or established church became a persecuting church. It could not compete with its now illegal rivals in faith, and so it used the state to persecute its competitors. Both catholic and Protestant establishments built up an ugly record in this respect. Meanwhile, their humanist foes could criticize their intolerance and speak of this inhumanity as a necessary aspect of christianity!
Fourth, religious toleration leads to intolerance, as it should now be apparent. Toleration is licensure; it is a state subsidy, and those possessing it want a monopoly. Hence, intoleration of competitors results, and the church becomes blind to all issues save monopoly. In 17th century England, for example, the blindness of the Church of England under Archbishop Laud, as he fought the Puritans, was staggering. However, when Cromwell came to power, the Presbyterians became a one-issue party, the issue being the control and possession of the Church of England. Had they triumphed, the evils of Laud would have been reproduced. Cromwell balked them; later, the Presbyterians undermined the Commonwealth and helped bring in the depraved Charles II, who quickly ejected them from the Church of England. In Colonial America, uneasy semi-establishments existed. Technically, the Church of England was the established church for all the crown realms, including Catholic lreland. (Ireland was never more Catholic than after England imposed an alien church on the land!) Carl Bridenbaugh, in Mitre and Sceptre (1962), showed how the fear and threat of a full-scale establishment with American bishops alarmed Americans and led to the War of Independence. Meanwhile, in the colonies, men began to oppose religious toleration in favor of religious liberty. Here, the Baptists were most important, especially Isaac Backus.
Backus declared, "We view it to be our incumbent duty to render unto Caesar the things that are his but also that it is of as much importance not to render unto him anything that belongs only to God, who is to be obeyed rather than any man. And as it is evident that God always claimed it as his sole prerogative to determine by his own laws what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported, so it is evident that this prerogative has been, and still is, encroached upon in our land." (Wm. J. Mcloughlin, editor: Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism, Pamphlets, 1754-1789, p. 317. Harvard University Press, 1965.) The defenders of establishment or toleration became, Backus said, "Caesar's friend," citing the Pharisees who said to Rome's magistrates about Jesus, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12). We cannot make the state the definer of man's duty to God, as the establishment-toleration position does. This position, Backus held, takes matters of faith from the conscience of man to the councils of state and thus undermines true faith. Backus saw that the new country would have no unity if establishment and toleration became lawful in the Federal Union. Backus quoted Cotton Mather, who said, "Violences may bring the erroneous to be hypocrites, but they will never bring them to be believers." The heart of Backus' position was this: "Religion (meaning Biblical religion) was prior to all states and kingdoms in the world and therefore could not in its nature be subject to human laws" (p. 432).
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, replacing religious toleration and establishment with religious liberty, was the result of the work of Backus and many other churchmen. It represented a great and key victory in church history.
Now, however, religious liberty is dead in the United States. It only exists if you confine it to the area between your two ears. Instead of religious liberty, we have religious toleration. Now, religious toleration is the reality of the situation in Red China and Red Russia. In both cases, the toleration is very, very limited. In the United States, the toleration is still extensive, and most churchmen fail to recognize that the states and the federal government are insisting that only toleration, not liberty, exists, and the limits of that toleration are being narrowed steadily.
Thus, Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina has given expression to the position of the regulators and tolerationists, writing (2-19-82), "Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right. It is not only proper but Constitutional that the government condition that privilege on the Constitutional requirement of nondiscrimination. Religious freedom is a priceless heritage that must be jealously guarded. But when religious belief is contrary to the law of the land then it is the law, not religion, that must be sustained. The 1964 Civil Rights Act provided there be no discrimination in institutions receiving Federal financial assistance and the courts have interpreted this to mean that no public monies be appropriated directly or indirectly through tax exemption to those institutions that discriminate" (Letter by Hollings, re: the Reagan bill S2024, to control Christian Schools).
Sen. Hollings has, with many, many other members of Congress, first, replaced religious liberty with state toleration. Tax exemption originally meant no jurisdiction by the state over the church, because the power to tax is the power to control and destroy. Now, these humanistic statists tell us it is a subsidy! Tax exemption is called "Federal financial assistance," and the courts hold that controls must follow assistance from the civil treasury. This means a mandate to control churches, and every facet of their existence, including Christian Schools, colleges, seminaries, employees, etc., in the name of controlling federal grants!
Second, Hollings (and others, including many judges) hold that this means that the civil Rights Act of 1964 must take priority over the First Amendment. The Civil Rights laws forbid discrimination in terms of race, and also a number of other things, including creed. The evidence is accumulating that federal authorities believe that they have now the legal right to require churches to ordain women, and homosexuals; on January 26, 1982, to a group of us meeting with Edwin Meese and 8 or 10 Justice Department lawyers in the White House, Meese (a Lutheran layman!) said flatly that this was within the legitimate power of the federal government. This means that the church, in terms of the same laws, can be forbidden to discriminate with respect to creed! This would mean equal time for all creeds, including humanism and atheism, in every church. In the World-wide Church of God case, the court held that a church and its assets belongs, not to the members thereof, but to all people, all citizens!
Third, the position of Hollings; Reagan; before him, Carter; the Justice Department; the Internal Revenue Service; the Labor Department; the Treasury Department; and the several states is that the only "freedom" that the church can have is that activity which the state chooses to tolerate. Toleration on any and all activities is subject to regulation, controls, and oversight.
This is, of course, totalitarianism. The fact is that religious liberty is dead and buried; it needs to be resurrected. We cannot begin to cope with our present crisis until we recognize that religious liberty has been replaced with religious toleration. The limits of that toleration are being steadily narrowed. If Christians are silent today, the Lord will not be silent towards them when they face the judgment of His Supreme Court. There is a war against Biblical faith, against the Lord, and the men waging that war masquerade it behind the facade of non-discrimination, subsidies, legitimate public interest, and so on.
All this is done in the name of one of the most evil doctrines of our time: public policy. Nothing contrary to public policy should have tax exemption, and, some hold, any right to exist. Today, public policy includes homosexual "rights," abortion, an established humanism, and much, much more. The implication is plain, and, with some, it is a manifesto: No one opposing public policy has any rights. The public policy doctrine is the new face of totalitarianism. It has all the echoes of tyrannies old and new, and with more muscles .
What is increasingly apparent is that the triune God of Scripture, the Bible itself, and all faith grounded thereon, are contrary to public policy. Christianity has no place in our state schools and universities; it does not inform the councils of state; every effort by Christians to affect the political process is called a violation of the First Amendment and "the separation of church and state." Our freedom of religion is something to be tolerated only if we keep it between our two ears. A war has been declared against us, and we had better know it, and we had better stand and fight before it is too late.
We may be able to live under religious toleration, but it will beget all the ancient evils of compromise, hypocrisy, and a purely or largely public religion. It will replace conscience with a state license, and freedom with a state-endowed cell of narrow limits. This is the best that toleration may afford us in the days ahead.
But the Lord alone is God, and He does not share His throne with the state. If we surrender to Caesar, we will share in Caesar's judgment and fall. If we stand with the Lord, we shall stand in His Spirit and power. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1). At the heart of that yoke of bondage is the belief and fear that the powers of man (and the state) arc greater than the power of God. It is bondage to believe that man can prevail, or that man can frustrate God's sovereign and holy purpose. The only real question is this: will we be a part of the world's defeat and judgment, or a part of the Lord's Kingdom and victory?
(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 147; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 31)