Written by Vladimir Moss


      It is generally assumed by Orthodox Christians that Orthodoxy is a liberal religion in the sense that it favours freedom of religion in general. It is pointed out with some pride that Orthodoxy has never had an institution to compare with the Catholic Inquisition, and that Orthodoxy has been the persecuted, rather than the persecutor, throughout her history. Orthodox persecutors such as Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great have been rare exceptions to the rule – and condemned ones at that.

      I believe that this is basically true. However, it is always dangerous to identify Orthodoxy with any popular dogma of the modern age. Even when Orthodoxy appears to coincide with popular sentiment, there are almost always subtle but important differences to be noted and qualifications to be made. And the motivation for the position in question is almost invariably different. It may therefore be useful to examine the Orthodox position on freedom of religion in the context of a brief historical survey.

The Origin of the Idea

     The modern world prides itself on its religious toleration as if this were a mark of its superiority over all previous civilizations, which, supposedly, were constantly persecuting dissidents. However, no society has ever practised complete toleration of all opinions. Rather, societies differ amongst themselves in those opinions which they tolerate, and those they do not tolerate, and in the manner and severity with which they persecute dissidents. Thus if earlier societies persecuted what they considered to be religious heresies, our contemporary society persecutes such attitudes as racism, “homophobia” and holocaust-denial. Just as there is no society which does not punish crime in general, and does not send murderers to prison, so there is no society which does not have a certain consensus of ideas that it acts in various ways to preserve and enforce, using the stick as well as the carrot.

     In fact, if we were to define the main difference between ancient and modern societies, it would not be that ancient societies were intolerant while modern societies are tolerant, but that ancient societies in general practised tolerance without elevating it into a supreme value, whereas modern societies, in accordance with its cult of freedom in all its forms, has elevated religious tolerance into an absolute value, a human “right”, in and for itself.     

    The main motive of religious toleration in the ancient world was simply political expediency – a multi-ethnic and multi-faith population is more easily controlled if all its faiths are respected and legalized. Another motive was superstition. After all, calculated the ruler (who was almost always religious), the god of this people is more likely to help me if I do not persecute his people…

     Consider, for example, Imperial Rome before Constantine. Contrary to what is generally thought, periods of persecution were intermittent and generally short-lived, and directed exclusively at Christians. (The Soviet persecution of the twentieth century was, by contrast, far more intense and persistent, and directed at all religions.)

      As Perez Zagorin writes, Rome “was tolerant in practice in permitting the existence of many diverse religious cults, provided their votaries also complied with the worship of the divine emperor as part of the state religion. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Roman religion had no sacred scriptures and did not depend on any creed, dogmas, or ethical principles. It consisted very largely of participation in cult acts connected with the worship of various deities and spirits that protected the Roman state and were associated with public, family, and domestic life. At nearly all stages of their history the Romans were willing to accept foreign cults and practices; this de facto religious pluralism is entirely attributable to the polytheistic character of Roman religion and had nothing to do with principles of values sanctioning religious toleration, a concept unknown to Roman society or law and never debated by Roman philosophers or political writers.”[1]

      Christianity introduced a new depth and a new complexity to the question of religious toleration. On the one hand, the Christians, like the Jews, rejected the idea of a multiplicity of gods, and insisted that there was only one name by which men could be saved – that of the One True God, Jesus Christ. This position did not logically imply that Christians wanted to persecute people of other faiths. But the “exclusivism” of Christianity, then as now, was perceived by the pagan-ecumenist majority, whether sincerely or insincerely, as a threat to themselves. On the other hand, the Christians set no value on the forcible conversion of people to the Faith: man, being in the image of God, was free, and could come to God only by his own free will.

      The Christian attitude was expressed by the lawyer Tertullian. “His Barring of Heretics (ca. 200) contained an exposition of Catholic principles and included a Rule of Faith that he called it heresy to question. Heretics, in his opinion, could not be called Christians. Although he insisted on the truth of Christianity, Tertullian was nevertheless opposed to compulsion in religion and stated in other works that ‘to do away with freedom of religion [libertas religionis]’ was wrong. While Christians, he said, worship the one God and pagans worship demons, both ‘human and natural law’ ordain that ‘each person may worship whatever he wishes’.”[2] However, Tertullian was writing at a time when the Church, as a persecuted minority, clearly benefited from religious toleration. What if the Church herself were to gain political power?


The Idea in Early Byzantium

      The Old Testament Kings David and Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah were required by God to defend the faith of the people as their first duty. The prophets constantly reminded them that they would be judged by God in accordance with their fulfilment or non-fulfilment of this duty. This same duty was taken very seriously by the greatest of the New Testament Emperors of New Rome, Constantine I, Theodosius I and Justinian I.

      The first Christian emperor, St. Constantine the Great, is often unjustly blamed by Protestants for introducing religious intolerance into the State. However, the truth is that he delivered the Church from the Diocletian persecution, and then introduced certain laws which facilitated Christian worship. He exiled the heretic Arius, but is not known to have killed anyone for his faith. For, as he declared: “It is one thing to undertake the contest for immortality voluntarily, another to compel others to do it likewise through fear of punishment.”[3] His imperial successors in the fourth century did persecute those whom they considered heretics – but one was a pagan, Julian the Apostate, and those before Julian were heretics themselves, and so not representative of Christian right practice.

      Non-violence to the persons of heretics combined with mercilessness to the heresies themselves was especially emphasised by St. John Chrysostom (+407), who wrote: “Christians above all men are forbidden to correct the stumblings of sinners by force… It is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice.”[4]

      Again, Hieromonk Patapios writes: “St. John showed not the slightest indulgence towards false teachings; indeed, much of his life as a preacher was devoted to combatting such heretics as the Eunomians, the Judaizers, and the Manichaeans. However, he was resolutely opposed to the use of violence by the authorities to subdue heretics. And it is this reservation of his that must be carefully understood, if one is to grasp what may seem to be a contradictory view of heretics. He knew from pastoral experience that heretics were far more likely to be turned aside from their errors by prayer: ‘And if you pray for the Heathens, you ought of course to pray for Heretics also, for we are to pray for all men, and not to persecute. And this is good also for another reason, as we are partakers of the same nature, and God commands and accepts benevolence towards one another’ (Homilies on the First Epistle to St. Timothy, 7). Near the end of this homily on the dangers of anathematizing others, he says that ‘we must anathematize heretical doctrines and refute impious teachings, from whomsoever we have received them, but show mercy to the men who advocate them and pray for their salvation.’ In other words, we must love the heretic, but hate the heresy.”[5]

     However, it may be wondered whether St. John’s words should be interpreted as an absolute ban on any kind of coercion in any circumstances. For there were other prominent and holy Christians contemporary with him who did approve of some measure of coercion in some circumstances. In particular, there was the question of the rights of the Christian emperor. If the Church as an institution or individual Christians could only persuade, not coerce, was it not the task of the emperor to coerce, or at any rate limit the activity of those who refused to be persuaded? It is significant that no prominent churchman denounced the undoubtedly coercive laws passed against pagans and heretics by the Emperor Theodosius I (379-395)…


     Theodosius, writes Perez Zagorin, “was an implacable enemy of heresy, against which he issued no fewer than eighteen edicts. He proscribed various heresies by name, ordered the confiscation of churches and private houses where heretics met for worship, and deprived them of the right to make wills or receive inheritances. In the case of certain heretical sects [the Manichaeans] he commanded that their members be hunted down and executed. In his attempt to enforce uniformity of belief he also instituted legislation against paganism, including a comprehensive enactment in 395 forbidding anyone of whatever rank of dignity to sacrifice to or worship ‘senseless images’ constructed ‘by human hands’, on pain of heavy fines and other penalties. [6] He was likewise the first emperor to impose penalties on Christians who profaned their baptism by reverting to paganism.

     “… All subjects were expected to be worshippers in this [the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic] Church; and in addition to the spiritual and political authority its bishops wielded, it had the power of the state at its disposal to enforce its faith against heretics. The practical toleration and religious pluralism that had formerly been the Roman custom no longer existed. The change that took place is epistomised in an appeal made in 384 by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus – a Roman senator, orator, and prefect of Rome, and a defender of paganism – to the emperors Theodosius I and Valentinian II to restore the altar of the goddess victory to the Senate House (it had been removed by imperial decree after standing there for over 350 years, since the reign of the emperor Augustus at the beginning of the first century). Speaking in the name of the proscribed ancient religion of Rome, Symmachus declared that ‘each nation has its own gods and peculiar rites. The Great Mystery cannot be approached by one avenue alone… Leave us the symbol on which our oaths of allegiance have been sworn for so many generations. Leave us the system which has given prosperity to the State.’ His plea was of no avail, however, for the cross of Christ had conquered the Roman Empire, and the altar of Victory remained banished and abandoned.”[7]

     Zeal against heretics was, of course, not the preserve of the Christian emperors. In 388 some Christians burned down the synagogue in Callinicum on the Euphrates. Theodosius ordered its rebuilding at the Christians’ expense. However, St. Ambrose, the famous Bishop of Milan,wrotetohim: “When a report was made by the military Count of the East that a synagogue had been burnt down, and that this was done at the instigation of the bishop, you gave command that the others should be punished, and the synagogue be rebuilt by the bishop himself… The bishop’s account ought to have been waited for, for priests are the calmers of disturbances, and anxious for peace, except when even they are moved by some offence against God, or insult to the Church. Let us suppose that the bishop burned down the synagogue… It will evidently be necessary for him to take back his act or become a martyr. Both the one and the other are foreign to your rule: if he turns out to be a hero, then fear lest he end his life in martyrdom; but if he turns out to be unworthy, then fear lest you become the cause of his fall, for the seducer bears the greater responsibility. And what if others are cowardly and agree to construct the synagogue? Then… you can write on the front of the building: ‘This temple of impiety was built on contributions taken from Christians’. You are motivated by considerations of public order. But what is the order from on high? Religion was always bound to have the main significance in the State, which is why the severity of the laws must be modified here. Remember Julian, who wanted to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem: the builders were then burned by the fire of God. Do you not take fright at what happened then?… And how many temples did the Jews not burn down under Julian at Gaza, Askalon, Beirut and other places? Youdidnottakerevengefor the churches, but now you take revenge for the synagogue!”[8]

     “What is more important,” he asked, “the parade of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interest.” [9]

     Ambrose refused to celebrate the Divine Liturgy until the imperial decree had been revoked.Theodosius backed down… So here we find one of the greatest saints of the Church urging one of the most severe of the Christian emperors (who is also counted as a saint) to adopt still greater severity against non-Christians than was his wont!

     The “Ambrosean” position may be tentatively formulated as follows. On the one hand, in relation to those outside her the Church can herself adopt no coercive measures; she can do no more than reason, plead and threaten with God’s justice at the Last Judgement.  Her only means of “coercion”, if it can be called that, is the excommunication of unrepentant Christians from her fold.  On the other hand, the Church blesses the Christian State to use other, more physical means of coercion against those over whom she has no more influence. The purpose of this is not to convert; for only persuasion can convert, and as St. Basil the Great says, “by violence you can frighten me, but not persuade me”. But there are other legitimate and Christian purposes for coercion: justice against evildoers, the restriction of their influence, and the protection of the young and weak in mind… At the same time, even St. Ambrose never advocated the execution of heretics or Jews.

      This aversion against the execution of heretics is found in other saints. Thus when St. Martin of Tours (+397) signed the decision of a Synod of Bishops condemning the Spanish heretic Priscillian and handing him over to the Western Emperor Maximus for execution, he felt the reproaches of his conscience, and never again attended a Synod of Bishops.[10] So can we say that the execution of heretics is absolutely forbidden by Orthodox Christianity?

      Not quite… In the Lives of the Saints we find a few instances of the saints blessing the execution of heretics. We even find cases in which saints who are not secular rulers have executed heretics or magicians themselves. Thus in The Acts of the Apostles we read how the Apostle Peter in effect executed Ananias and Sapphira. Again, the Apostles Peter and Paul by their prayers brought about the death of Simon Magus. Again, St. Basil the Great prayed for, and obtained, the death of Julian the Apostate (by the sword of St. Mercurius the Great Martyr). And the holy hierarchs Patrick of Ireland and Leo of Catania in effect executed particularly stubborn perverters of the people.

      At this point it will be useful to consider the position of St. Augustine of Hippo, who was baptized by St. Ambrose, and who took the “Ambrosean position” a step further. Perez Zagorin writes: “Augustine carried on a long theological combat with three formidable heresies, Manichaeanism, Pelagianism, and Donatism. Among his writings against the last of these and its followers, the Donatists, he left an invaluable record of his reflections on the justification of coercion against heretics to enforce religious truth. At the time he became bishop of Hippo, Donatism, which took its name from one of its first leaders, Donatus, bishop of Carthage, had already existed in North Africa for more than eighty years and had undergone considerable persecution. Originating in the early fourth century in an ecclesiastical controversy over a bishop who had [allegedly] compromised with paganism during the persecution by the emperor Diocletian and was therefore considered a betrayer of the faith, the Donatists formed a schismatic and rival church with its own clergy. Rigorists who believed in a church composed exclusively of the holy, they maintained that an unworthy priest could not perform a valid sacrament. By insisting on the rebaptism of converts, the Donatist church declared its rejection of the sacramental character of Catholic baptism. To some extent Donatism represented an expression of social protest against the profane world as a domain ruled by Satan. Its more extreme advocates, a fanatical fringe of zealots and ascetics known as Circumcellions, sought a martyr’s death by any means, including suicide; they gathered as bands of marauding peasants who attacked estates and committed other acts of violence. As a self-described church of martyrs, the Donatists condemned the alliance between Catholicism and the Roman authorities as a renunciation of Christ in favour of Caesar, and their bishop Donatus was reported to have said, ‘What has the Emperor to do with the Church?’ In the course of its history Donatism became a considerable movement, although it remained largely confined to North Africa.

     “In his numerous writings against this heresy, one of Augustine’s constant aims was to persuade its followers by means of reason and arguments to abandon their errors and return to the Catholic Church. He did his best to refute its doctrines in a number of treatises and at first opposed any use of coercion against these heretics. A lost work of 397 repudiated coercion, and in an undated letter to a Donatist churchman he wrote: “I do not intend that anyone should be forced into the Catholic communion against his will. On the contrary, it is my aim that the truth may be revealed to all who are in error and that… with the help of God, it may be made manifest so as to induce all to follow and embrace it of their own accord.’ To several Donatists he wrote in around 398 that those who maintain a false and perverted opinion but without ‘obstinate ill will’ – and especially those ‘who have not originated their error by bold presumption’ but received it from their parents or others, and who see truth with a readiness to be corrected when they have found it – are not to be included among heretics. The heretic himself, however, ‘swollen with hateful pride and with the assertion of evil contradiction, is to be avoided like a mad man’.

     “Nevertheless, Augustine eventually reversed his position and decided to endorse coercion. Looking back at this development some years later, he said that at first he had believed that no one should be forced into the unity of Christ, and that the Church should rely only on speaking, reasoning, and persuasion ‘for fear of making pretended Catholics out of those whom we knew as open heretics’. But then proven facts caused him to give up this opinion when he saw Donatists in his own city ‘converted to Catholic unity by the fear of imperial laws’ and those in other cities recalled by the same means. Reclaimed Donatists, he contended, were now grateful that ‘fear of the laws promulgated by temporal rulers who serve the Lord in fear has been so beneficial’ to them.

     “We first learn of Augustine’s change of mind in the treatise he wrote (ca. 400) as a reply to a letter by the Donatist bishop Parmenian, a leading spokesman of the movement. In this work he justified the intervention of the imperial government against the Donatists by making Saint Paul’s theology of the state, as the apostle outlined it in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans (Romans 13.1-7). There Paul instructed Christians to be obedient to the higher powers as the minister ordained by God and armed with the sword for the repression of evildoers. In the light of this apostolic teaching, Augustine insisted that the emperors and the political authorities had the God-given right and duty to crush the sacrilege and schism of the Donatists, since they were as obligated to repress a false and evil religion as to prevent the crime of pagan idolatry. He further pointed out that the Donatists were guilty of many cruelties and had themselves appealed to the emperors in the past against the dissidents in their own church. Denying that those of them condemned to death were martyrs, he described them instead as killers of souls and, because of their violence, often killers of bodies.

      “One of the arguments he put forward in defense of force in this work was his interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the tares in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 13.24-30). This famous text was destined to be cited often during subsequent centuries in discussions of toleration and persecution, and to occupy a prominent place in the tolerationist controversies of the era of the Protestant Reformation. The parable first likens the kingdom of heaven to a good see and then relates how a man sowed good seed in the ground, whereupon his enemy came in the night and planted tares, or weeds, there as well. When the wheat appeared, so did the tares. The man’s servants asked their master if they should pull up the tares, but he forbade them lest they also uproot the wheat. He ordered that both should be left to grow until the harvest, and then the reapers would remove and burn the tares and gather the wheat into the barn. The parable’s point would seem to be that good people and sinners alike should be allowed to await the Last Judgement to receive their due, when God would reward the good with the kingdom of heaven and punish the bad with the flames of hell. Augustine, however, drew from it a very different lesson: if the bad seed is known, it should be uprooted. According to his explanation, the only reason the master left the tares to grow until the harvest was the fear that uprooting them sooner would harm the grain. When this fear does not exist because it is evident which is the good seed, and when someone’s crime is notorious and so execrable that it is indefensible, then it is right to use severe discipline against it, for the more perversity is corrected, the more carefully charity is safeguarded. With the help of this interpretation, which reversed the parable’s meaning, Augustine was able not only to justify the Roman government’s repression of the Donatists but to provide a wider reason for religious persecution by the civil authorities.

     “Augustine elaborated his position in favour of coercion in religion in a number of letters. In a lengthy epistle to the Donatist Vincent, he argued for the utility of coercion in inducing fear that can bring those who are subject to it to the right way of thinking. Maintaining that people could be changed for the better through the influence of fear, he concluded that ‘when the saving doctrine is added to useful fear’, then ‘the light of truth’ can drive out ‘the darkness of error’. To reinforce this view, he quoted the parable of the feast in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 14. 21-23), another of the texts that was to figure prominently in future tolerationist controversy. In this parable, a man prepared a great feast to which he invited many guests who failed to appear. After summoning from the city the poor, blind, and lame to come and eat, he found that room still remained, so he ordered his servants to ‘go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in [compelle intrare in the Latin Vulgate], that My house may be filled’. ‘Do you think,’ Augustine asked in a comment on this passage, ‘that no one should be forced to do right, when you read that the master of the house said to his servants, “Whomever you find, compel them to come in”’. He referred also to the example of the conversion of the apostle Paul, who ‘was forced by the great violence of Christ’s compulsion to acknowledge and hold the truth’ (Acts 9.3-18). The main point, he claimed, was not whether anyone was forced to do something, but whether the purpose of doing so was right or wrong. While no one could be made good against his will, the fear of punishment could persuade a person to repudiate a false doctrine and embrace the truth he had previously denied, as had happened to many Donatists who had thankfully become Catholics and now detested their diabolical separation. 

     “In dealing with heresy, Augustine thus laid great stress on what might be called the pedagogy of fear to effect a change of heart. He did not see coercion and free will as opposites in religious choice but claimed that fear plays a part in spontaneous acts of the will and may serve a good end. In one of his most important statements on the subject, contained in a letter of 417 to Boniface, the Roman governor of Africa, he propounded a distinction between two kinds of persecution. ‘[T]here is an unjust persecution,’ he said, ‘which the wicked inflict on the Church of Christ, and … a just persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts on the wicked.’ The Church persecutes from love, the Donatists from hatred; the Church in order to correct error, the Donatists to hurl men into error. While the Church strives to save the Donatists from perdition, the latter in their fury kill Catholics to feed their passion for cruelty. Augustine was convinced that the coercion of heretics was therefore a great mercy because it rescued them from lying demons so that they could be healed in the Catholic fold. He rejected the objection of those who said that the apostles had never called upon the kings of the earth to enforce religion, since in the apostles’ time there had been no Christian emperor to whom they could appeal. It was necessary and right, however, for kings to forbid and restrain with religious severity actions contrary to God’s commandments, and to serve God by sanctioning laws that commanded goodness and prohibited its opposite.

      “While admitting that it was better to lead people to the worship of God by teaching than to force them through fear of suffering, Augustine nevertheless averred that the latter way could not be neglected. Experience proved, he claimed, that for many heretics it had been a blessing to be driven out by fear of bodily pain to undergo instruction in the truth and then follow up with actions what they had learned in words. Schismatics, he noted, protested that men have freedom to believe or not to believe, and that Christ never used force on anyone. To this objection he countered with his previous argument that Christ had first compelled Paul to cease his persecution of the Christian Church by striking him blind at his conversion and only then taught him. ‘It is a wonderful thing,’ he said, ‘how he [Paul] who came to the gospel under the compulsion of bodily suffering labored more in the gospel than all the others who were called byy words alone.’ Once again he drew on the injunction compelle intrare in the Gospel of Luke to affirm that the Catholic Church was in accord with God when it compelled heretics and schismatics to come in. In other letters he denied that the ‘evil will’ should be left to its freedom, and cited not only this same parable and the example of Christ’s compulsion of Paul, but also God’s restraint of the Israelites from doing evil and compelling them to enter the land of promise (Exodus 15.22-27), as proof of the Church’s justice in using coercion.

     “Although after his change of mind Augustine consistently approved the policyt of subjecting heretics to coercion, he never desired that they should be killed. In writing to Donatists, he often stated that he and his brethren loved them and acted for their good, and that if they hated the Catholic Church, it was because ‘we do not allow you to go astray and be lost’. Donatists had been subject to previous imperial legislation against heresy, but between 405 and 410 the emperor Honorius decreed a number of heavy penalties against them that put them outside the protection of the law for their seditious actions; he ordered their heresy to be put down in ‘blood and proscription’. Augustine frequently interceded with the Roman authorities to spare their lives. In 408 he wrote to the proconsul of Africe urging Christian clemency and praying that though heretics [should] be made to feel the effect of the laws against them, they should not be put to death, despite deserving the extreme punishment, in the hope that they might be converted. To another high official he pleaded in behalf of some Donatists tried for murder and other violent acts that they should be deprived of their freedom but not executed that they might have the chance to repent.

     “Although repression weakened Donatism, it failed to eliminate this deeply rooted heresy, which survived until the later seventh century when the Islamic conquest of North Africa destroyed every form of Christianity in this region. In the course of his career, Augustine, who was not only an outstanding thinker but a man of keen and sensitive conscience, wrestled strenuously with the problem of heresy and the achievement of Catholic unity by the use of coercion… ‘Pride’, he once wrote, ‘is the mother of all heretics,’ and fear could break down this pride and thus act as an auxiliary in the process of conversion. Whether the heretic was really sincere in professing a change of mind under the threat of bodily pain was a question that could best be left to God. Augustine certainly did not recommend the death penalty for heretics but strove tirelessly to save their souls from eternal perdition. He supported their repression by the Roman imperial government in the hope of restoring them to the Catholic Church, and because, as he said in a letter to some Donatists, ‘nothing can cause more complete death to the soul than freedom to disseminate error’.”[11]

     St. Augustine’s scriptural justification for his teaching here has seemed to many to be forced and artificial. However, it is more difficult to refute his general contention that some form of physical coercion practised against inveterate sinners and heretics – but not extending to execution, for that would be “uprooting the tares” - is justified. Just as God sends all kinds of physical calamities on men in order to humble their pride and make them examine themselves and become more responsive to the true teaching, so for the same reasons (and also to protect the young and the weak in mind) earthly rulers should punish those who publicly blaspheme God or distort His teaching in a particularly serious manner. Certainly, such punishments were accepted by almost all Christian societies, including the Byzantine and Russian empires, until very recent times. Only in our post-Christian times has it seemed logical and right to imprison a man for slandering another man, but to allow the vilest slanderers of Almighty God to go scot-free…

     Underlying the argument that heresy should not be punished, - physically, at any rate, - there seems to the false idea that the sins of man can be divided into “mental” and “physical”, and that only physical sins (murder, theft) need to be punished physically. However, as Lev Alexandrovich Tikhomirov writes: “Man is a bodily being. Moral ‘persuasion’ is inseparable from moral ‘coercion’, and in certain cases also from physical ‘violence’. If one says: ‘Act through moral persuasion, but do not dare to resort to physical violence’, this is either absurdity or hypocrisy. Every conviction sooner or later unfailingly finds its expression in forms of physical action for the simple reason that man is not [only] spirit and lives in a physical form. All our acts represent a union of spiritual and physical acts. If a man does something, it is unfailingly accompanied by physical actions. This relates both to good and to evil. One can oppose evil sometimes by moral persuasions, but at other times it is impossible to resist it otherwise than physically, and then ‘resistance’ and ‘violence’ are morally obligatory.”[12]


Roman Catholic Intolerance 

     The balanced and Orthodox view, therefore, is that persuasion is always to be preferred to compulsion, but that physical punishments excluding execution are appropriate for particularly dangerous and stubborn heretics, both in order to humble them and make them more amenable to correction, and in order to protect those who might be corrupted by their words. However, this attitude began to be undermined in the West from the time of Charlemagne, who attempted to “convert” multitudes of Saxons in the “wild east” of his domains at the edge of the sword. After the fall of the West from Orthodoxy in 1054, the acceptance of conversion by force became widespread. Or rather, the view now was that if someone would not be converted voluntarily, he might as well be killed, since he was clearly worthless and destined for hell fire anyway…

      This view was most notoriously expressed in the crusades. Thus in the first crusade of 1098-99, the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem were slaughtered en masse. Again, Bernard of Clairvaux said about the Wendish (Baltic) crusade of 1147: “We expressly forbid that for any reason whatsoever they should make a truce with those peoples, whether for money or for tribute, until such time as, with God’s help, either their religion or their nation be destroyed.”[13] Both the religion and the nation were duly destroyed… For, as Bernard stressed “the knight of Christ need fear no sin in killing the foe, he is a minister of God for the punishment of the wicked. In the death of a pagan a Christian is glorified, because Christ is glorified.”[14]

     Even the Orthodox Russians were considered to be in need of this militaristic kind of conversion. Thus in 1150 Bishop Matthew of Crakow asked Bernard to “exterminate the godless rites and customs of the Ruthenians [Russians]”.[15] But even the Pope was repulsed by the crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204, an event that finally sealed the schism between East and West. And yet in 1209, the same Pope, Innocent III, gave an expedition against the Cathar heretics the status of a crusade. At Muret in 1213 the Catholic crusaders from northern France overcame the Cathars of southern France and a terrible inquisition and bloodletting followed. Indeed, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, “the crusades against the European heretics represented the ultimate fusion of church and military… In return for an offer of indulgences, northern French knights ‘flayed Provence [home of the Cathars], hanging, beheading, and burning ‘with unspeakable joy.’ When the city of Béziers was taken and the papal legate was asked how to distinguish between the Cathars and the regular Catholics, he gave the famous reply: 'Kill them all; God will know which are His…’”[16]

      This slaughter was legalised at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, in which it was declared a bounden duty to kill heretics: “If a temporal Lord neglects to fulfil the demand of the Church that he shall purge his land of this contamination of heresy, he shall be excommunicated by the metropolitan and other bishops of the province. If he fails to make amends within a year, it shall be reported to the Supreme Pontiff, who shall pronounce his vassals absolved from fealty to him and offer his land to Catholics. The latter shall exterminate the heretics, possess the land without dispute and preserve it in the true faith… Catholics who assume the cross and devote themselves to the extermination of heretics shall enjoy the same indulgence and privilege as those who go to the Holy Land…”[17]

      The theological justification for the extermination of heretics was given some years later by Thomas Aquinas: “There is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a much more serious matter to corrupt faith through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported. Hence if forgers of money or other malefactors are straightway justly put to death by secular princes, with much more justice can heretics, immediately upon conviction, be not only excommunicated but also put to death.”[18] 

     We can agree with Aquinas that heresy is a more serious sin than forging money. But, as we have seen, if we follow the natural (non-Augustinian) interpretation of the parable of the tares, the Lord expressly forbids the execution of heretics for a very specific reason – “lest you uproot the wheat together with the tares”.

     Such a warning and prohibition was especially applicable to the Roman Catholic West after the foundation of the Inquisition in 1231, when the inquisitors themselves were heretics and many of their victims were probably innocent of the charges against them. For in the Inquisition only one verdict was possible: guilty. As the Libro Negro of the inquisitors said, “if, notwithstanding all the means employed, the unfortunate wretch still denies his guilt, he is to be considered as a victim of the devil: and, as such, deserves no compassion…: he is a son of perdition. Let him perish among the damned…”[19]


The Revival of Tolerance 

     In the early sixteenth century, in the wake of the resurrection of the old pagan ideas of the dignity of man, the pagan idea of religious toleration also revived. We say “pagan”, because the justification adduced for religious toleration was not Orthodox Christian, but what we would now call ecumenist: a belief that religious differences are not worth fighting and dying over. This humanist attitude would not survive the appearance of Protestantism in the 1520s and the religious wars that followed; but it revived again in the more sceptical eighteenth century.

      We find it well expressed in Sir Thomas More’s fantasy-manifesto, Utopia: the Best State of the Commonwealth (1516). On the island of Utopia, or Land of Nowhere, King Utopus has introduced a social system characterized by common ownership of property and religious toleration, with no official church or religion.

      “King Utopus, even at the first beginning hearing that the inhabitants of the land were before his coming thither at continual dissension and strife among themselves for their religions, perceiving also that this common dissension (whiles every several sect took several parts in fighting for his country) was the only occasion of his conquest over them all, as soon as he had gotten the victory, first of all made a decree that it should be lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he would, and that he might do the best he could to bring other to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly, and soberly, without hasty and contentious rebuking and inveighing against others. If he could not by fair and gentle speech induce them unto his opinion, yet he should use no kind of violence, and refrain from displeasant and seditious words. To him that would vehemently and fervently in this cause strive and contend was decreed banishment or bondage.

     “This law did King Utopus make, not only for the maintenance of peace, which he saw through continual contention and mortal hatred utterly extinguished, but also because he thought this decree should make for the furtherance of religion… Furthermore, though there be one religion which alone is true, and all other vain and superstitious, yet did he well foresee (so that the matter were handled with reason and sober modesty) that the truth of its own power would at the last issue out and come to light. But if contention and debate in that behalf should continually be used, as the worst men be most obstinate and stubborn and in their evil opinion most constant, he perceived that then the best and holiest religion would be trodden underfoot and destroyed by most vain superstitions, even as good corn is by thorns and weeds overgrown and choked.”[20]

     More seems to be hovering here between two contrary propositions: that free debate will ultimately lead to the triumph of truth (“the truth of its own power would at the last issue out and come to light”), and that this freedom will used by the worst men for the triumph of heresy (“then the best and holiest religion would be trodden underfoot”). More himself came to favour the second proposition over the first, and for nearly two hundred years thereafter, it would be the second proposition that would be believed by the majority of men. [21] As late as 1646 Thomas Edwards wrote: “Religious toleration is the greatest of all evils; it will bring in first scepticism in doctrine and looseness of life, then atheism”.[22]

      The beginning of a politics of toleration can be seen in Germany in 1555, when the bitter struggle between Catholicism and Lutheranism was brought to an end temporarily by the Peace of Augsburg, which enshrined the cuius regio eius religio formula: the religion of a country, whether Catholic or Lutheran, was determined by the faith of its ruler. This Peace may not have been much comfort to a Catholic living in a Lutheran state, or to a Lutheran living in a Catholic state, but it least recognized a plurality of religions in Germany as a whole. But the peace did not prove lasting: in 1618 there began the still bitterer Thirty Years War. This came to an end with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which modified the Augsburgian framework to allow Calvinism as a third religious alternative for rulers, acknowledging that “subjects whose religion differs from that of their prince are to have equal rights with his other subjects” (V. 35).

      We see a similar pattern of limited tolerance followed by renewed persecution in France. In 1598 the Catholic King Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes, which put an end to the bloody war between the French Catholics and Calvinist Huguenots, keeping Catholicism as the official religion of France while giving religious freedom to the Protestants. But in the early seventeenth century the Protestants rebelled several times, which led to a revoking of their privileges and the complete revocation of the Edict by Louis XIV in 1685. This elicited the emigration of many thousands of Huguenots to other countries. But Louis’ revival of Catholic militarism was finally quenched in the early eighteenth century after the failure of his wars against Protestant Holland and England.

     Of course, some relaxation of religious persecution was only to be expected, when in Germany, for example, as a result of the Thirty Years War, between a third and a half of the population lay dead. No society can continue to take such losses without disappearing altogether. Believers on both sides of the conflict were exhausted. They longed for a rest from religious passions and the opportunity to rebuild their shattered economies in peace. It was as a result of this cooling of religious passions, and rekindling of commercial ones, that the idea of religious toleration was born. Or rather, reborn. For, as we have seen, even the fiercest of ancient despotisms of the past had gone through phases of religious toleration – for example, the Roman empire in the late third century, or the Mongols in the thirteenth. 

     The first country to introduce religious toleration in a systematic and enduring manner was Holland. Shortly after the Union of Utrecht (1579), when the seven northern provinces resolved to fight for their independence against Spain, the Dutch declared that not only all Protestant sects, but also Jews and even – most surprisingly, given the current war against Catholic Spain - Roman Catholics were given freedom to practise their beliefs. All strictly religious faiths were given liberty alongside the newest and most important faith, Capitalism. As the English Catholic poet Andrew Marvell put it in his poem, “The Character of Holland” (1653):


Hence Amsterdam, Turk-Christian-Pagan-Jew,

Staple of Sects and Mint of Schism grew;

That Bank of Conscience, where not one so strange

Opinion but finds Credit, and Exchange

In vain for Catholicks ourselves we bear;

The universal church is onely there.


Holland has maintained its reputation of being in the vanguard of liberty, toleration and permissiveness to the present day. It was not by chance that when the foremost expression of the modern ecumenical movement, the “universal church” of the World Council of Churches, was founded in 1948, its centre was designated in Amsterdam

     Other countries did not immediately follow the lead given by Holland and Germany. Thus in England religious passions continued to exclude toleration until after the triumph of Cromwell. For, as Winstanley wrote in The Law of Freedom (1651), Cromwell “became the main stickler for liberty of conscience without any limitation. This toleration became his masterpiece in politics; for it procured him a party that stuck close in all cases of necessity.”

     Cromwell’s supporter, the poet John Milton, produced a whole tract, Areopagitica (1646) in favour of freedom of speech and the abolition of censorship. “Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

     Besides, “how”, he asked ironically, “shall the licensers themselves be confided in, unless we can confer upon them, or they assume to themselves above all others in the Land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?” 

     Not was Calvinism an inherently tolerant creed. Calvin asked “why good magistrates shouldn’t draw the sword given them by heaven to repress the apostates who openly mock God and profane and violate his sanctuary”.[23] And “the Calvinist dogma of predestination,” as Porter points out, “had bred ‘enthusiasm’, that awesome, irresistible and unfalsifiable conviction of personal infallibility.”[24]

     So the English revolutionaries were not the most tolerant of men… But the tide was turning. Shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II tried to persuade the English parliament to introduce religious toleration on the Dutch model, but failed. But in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1668) we can see people’s revulsion from the methods of the wars of religion:


Such as do build their faith upon

The holy text of pike and gun

Decide all controversies by

Infallible artillery…

As if religion were intended

For nothing else but to be mended.

And he described the rise of another, no less pernicious tendency – the enthronement of the love of money above every value:

What makes all doctrines plain and clear?

About two hundred poundes a year.

And that which was true before

Proved false again? Two hundred more…


English Liberalism 

     It was not until the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when the Dutch King William was invited to accept the throne of England, that religious toleration began to become universally accepted by polite society in England. However, it was in need of a philosophical justification. This was provided by the English philosophers Hobbes and Locke, especially the latter.

     Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), published during Cromwell’s Protectorate, at first sight seems a recipe for intolerance – indeed, the most complete tyranny of the State over the religious beliefs of its citizens. For religious truth, according to Hobbes, was nothing other than that which the sovereign ruler declared it to be: “An opinion publicly appointed to be taught cannot be heresy; nor the Sovereign Princes that authorise them heretics.”[25]

     Being in favour of the absolute power of the sovereign, Hobbes was fiercely opposed to the other major power in traditional societies, religion, which he relegated to an instrument of government; so that the power of censorship passed, in his theory, entirely from the Church to the State.

     However, Hobbes was not opposed to dissent so long as it did not lead to anarchy, “for such truth as opposeth no man’s profit nor pleasure, is to all men welcome.”[26] In fact, he did not believe in objective Truth, but only in “appetites and aversions, hopes and fears”, and in the power of human reason to regulate them towards the desired end of public and private tranquillity. He was not anti-religious so much as a-religious. 

     Hobbesean indifference to religion was a step towards its toleration, but it did not go very far. It was Locke, according to Roy Porter, who became the real “high priest of toleration”. “In an essay of 1667, which spelt out the key principles expressed in his later Letters on Toleration, Locke denied the prince’s right to enforce religious orthodoxy, reasoning that the ‘trust, power and authority’ of the civil magistrate were vested in him solely to secure ‘the good preservation and peace of men in that society’. Hence princely powers extended solely to externals, not to faith, which was a matter of conscience. Any state intervention in faith was ‘meddling’.

     “To elucidate the limits of those civil powers, Locke divided religious opinions and actions into three. First, there were speculative views and modes of divine worship. These had ‘an absolute and universal right to toleration’, since they did not affect society, being either private or God’s business alone. Second, there were those – beliefs about marriage and divorce, for instance – which impinged upon others and hence were of public concern. These ‘have a title also to toleration, but only so far as they do not tend to the disturbance of the State’. The magistrate might thus prohibit publication of such convictions if they would disturb the public good, but no one ought to be forced to forswear his opinion, for coercion bred hypocrisy. Third, there were actions good or bad in themselves. Respecting these, Locke held that civil rulers should have ‘nothing to do with the good of men’s soul or their concernments in another life’ – it was for God to reward virtue and punish vice, and the magistrate’s job simply to keep the peace. Applying such principles to contemporary realities, Locke advocated toleration, but with limits: Papists should not be tolerated, because their beliefs were ‘absolutely destructive of all governments except the Pope’s’; nor should atheists, since any oaths they took would be in bad faith.[27]

     “As a radical Whig in political exile in the Dutch republic, Locke wrote the first Letter on Toleration, which was published, initially in Latin, in 1689. Echoing the 1667 arguments, this denied that Christianity could be furthered by force. Christ was the Prince of Peace, his gospel was love, his means persuasion; persecution could not save souls. Civil and ecclesiastical government had contrary ends; the magistrate’s business lay in securing life, liberty and possessions, whereas faith was about the salvation of souls. A church should be a voluntary society, like a ‘club for claret’; it should be shorn of all sacerdotal pretensions. While Locke’s views were contested – Bishop Stillingfleet, for example, deemed them a ‘Trojan Horse’ – they nevertheless won favour in an age inclined, or resigned, to freedom of thought and expression in general.”[28]

     “Since you are pleased to enquire,” wrote Locke, “what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely, that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristical mark of the true church.”[29]

     As Smith interprets his thought: “Religion is a man’s private concern, his belief is part of himself, and he is the sole judge of the means to his own salvation. Persecution only creates hypocrites, while free opinion is the best guarantee of truth. Most ceremonies are indifferent; Christianity is simple; it is only theologians who have encrusted it with dogma. Sacerdotalism, ritual, orthodoxy, do not constitute Christianity if they are divorced from charity. Our attempts to express the truth of religion must always be imperfect and relative, and cannot amount to certainty… Church and State can be united if the Church is made broad enough and simple enough, and the State accepts the Christian basis. Thus religion and morality might be reunited, sectarianism would disappear with sacerdotalism; the Church would become the nation organised for goodness…”[30]

     Such lukewarmness would hardly have satisfied a truly religious nation; but from 1688 England’s religious zeal rapidly cooled, and to this day “toleration” represents for English Christianity the cardinal virtue, perhaps the only essential virtue, and certainly more important than true faith... 

     It was ironic, in view of Locke’s anti-Catholicism, that the first ruler who legislated for tolerance was the Catholic King James II, who bestowed freedom of religion on Catholics, Anglicans and Non-Conformists in his Declaration of Indulgence (1688), declaring: “We cannot but heartily wish, as it will easily be believed, that all the people of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church; yet we humbly thank Almighty God, it is and has of long time been our constant sense and opinion (which upon divers occasions we have declared) that conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion: it has ever been directly contrary to our inclination, as we think it is to the interest of government, which it destroys by spoiling trade, depopulating countries, and discouraging strangers, and finally, that it never obtained the end for which it was employed…”[31]

      The generosity shown by James to non-Catholics was not reciprocated by his Protestant successors, who, through the Toleration Act (1689) and Declaration of Indulgence (1690), re-imposed restrictions on the Catholics while removing them from the Protestants. To this day the heir to the British throne is still not allowed to marry a Catholic…

     The justification given for this was purely secular: “Some ease to scrupulous consciences in the exercise of religion” was to be granted, since this “united their Majesties’ Protestant subjects in interest and affection…”

     In other words, tolerance was necessary in order to avoid the possibility of civil war between the Anglicans and the Non-Conformist Protestants.

    For, as Porter goes on, “the so-called Toleration Act of 1689 had an eye first and foremost to practical politics, and did not grant toleration. Officially an ‘Act for Exempting their Majesties’ Protestant Subjects, Dissenting from the Church of England, from the Penalties of Certain Laws’, it stated that Trinitarian Protestand Nonconformists who swore the oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance and accepted thirty-six of the Thirty-nine Articles [the official confession of the Anglican Church] could obtain licences as ministers or teachers. Catholics and non-Christians did not enjoy the rights of public worship under the Act – and non-Trinitarians were left subject to the old penal laws. Unitarians, indeed, were further singled out by the Blasphemy Act of 1697, which made it an offence to ‘deny any one of the persons in the holy Trinity to be God’. There was no official Toleration Act for them until 1813, and in Scotland the death penalty could still be imposed – as it was in 1697 – for denying the Trinity.

     “Scope for prosecution remained. Ecclesiastical courts still had the power of imprisoning for atheism, blasphemy and heresy (maximum term: six months). Occasional indictments continued under the common law, and Parliament could order books to be burned. Even so, patriots justly proclaimed that England was, alongside the United Provinces, the first nation to have embraced religious toleration – a fact that became a matter of national pride. ‘My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in subjects; and it was a merry reflection which I frequently made, how like a king I looked,’ remarked Defoe’s castaway hero, Robinson Crusoe; ‘we had but three subjects, and they were of different religions. My man Friday was a pagan and a cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: however, I allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions’.

      “Two developments made toleration a fait accompli: the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695[32], and the fact that England had already been sliced up into sects. It was, quipped Voltaire, a nation of many faiths but only one sauce, a recipe for confessional tranquillity if culinary tedium: ‘If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of despotism, if there were only two they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live in peace’ [Letters concerning the English Nation].”[33]

     The more religious justifications of tolerance offered by More or Milton were no longer in fashion. In the modern age that was beginning, religious tolerance was advocated, not because it ensured the eventual triumph of the truth, but because it prevented war. And war, of course, “spoiled trade”…

      “To enlightened minds,” writes Porter, “the past was a nightmare of barbarism and bigotry: fanaticism had precipitated bloody civil war and the axing of Charles Stuart, that man of blood, in 1649. Enlightened opinion repudiated old militancy for modern civility. But how could people adjust to each other? Sectarianism, that sword of the saints which had divided brother from brother, must cease; rudeness had to yield to refinement. Voltaire saw this happening before his very eyes in England’s ‘free and peaceful assemblies’: ‘Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together as tho’ they all profess’d the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. And all are satisfied’. [Letters concerning the English Nation]. This passage squares with the enlightened belief that commerce would unite those whom creeds rent asunder. Moreover, by depicting men content, and content to be content – differing, but agreeing to differ – the philosophe pointed towards a rethinking of the summum bonum, a shift from God-fearingness to a selfhood more psychologically oriented. The Enlightenment thus translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’”[34]


The American Idea 

     During the eighteenth century, under the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment, the idea of religious toleration underwent a subtle but important change in Europe. This was the change from toleration as “a utilitarian expedient to avoid destructive strife” to toleration as “an intrinsic value”.[35] It became a dogma of the Enlightenment and Masonry that a ruler could not impose his religion on his subjects.[36] In fact, certain rulers, such as Frederick the Great, adopted an attitude of complete religious indifference. However, the complete separation of Church and State, religion and politics, was still unheard-of in Europe. This idea was first put into practice in the United States, a land founded mainly by Calvinist refugees fleeing from the State’s persecution of their religion. It marks the furthest application of the principle of negative liberty, freedom from. For what the Calvinist refugees valued above all was the freedom to practice their religion free from any interference from the State.

     K.N. Leontiev writes: “The people who left Old England and laid the foundations of the States of America were all extremely religious people who did not want to make any concessions with regard to their burning personal faith and had not submitted to the State Church of Episcopal Anglicanism, not out of progressive indifference, but out of godliness.

     “The Catholics, Puritans, Quakers, all were agreed about one thing – that there should be mutual tolerance, not out of coldness, but out of necessity. And so the State created by them for the reconciliation of all these burning religious extremes found its centre of gravity outside religion. Tolerance was imposed by circumstances, there was no inner indifferentism.”[37]

     “After the Revolution,” however, writes Karen Armstrong, “when the newly independent states drew up their constitutions, God was mentioned in them only in the most perfunctory manner. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson disestablished the Anglican church in Virginia; his bill declared that coercion in matters of faith was ‘sinfull and tyrannical’, that truth would prevail if people were allowed their own opinions, and that there should be a ‘wall of separation’ between religion and politics. The bill was supported by the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians of Virginia, who resented the privileged position of the Church of England in the state. Later the other states followed Virginia’s lead, and disestablished their own churches, Massachusetts being the last one to do so, in 1833. In 1787, when the federal Constitution was drafted at the Philadelphia Convention, God was not mentioned at all, and in the Bill of Rights (1789), the First Amendment of the Constitution formally separated religion from the state: ‘Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. Henceforth faith would be a private and voluntary affair in the United States. This was a revolutionary step and has been hailed as one of the great achievements of the Age of Reason. The thinking behind it was indeed inspired by the tolerant philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the Founding Fathers were also moved by more pragmatic considerations. They knew that the federal Constitution was essential to preserve the unity of the states, but they also realized that if the federal government established any single one of the Protestant denominations and made it the official faith of the United States, the Constitution would not be approved. Congregationalist Massachusetts, for example, would never ratify a Constitution that established the Anglican Church. This was also the reason why Article VI, Section 3, of the Constitution abolished religious tests for office in the federal government. There was idealism in the Founders’ decision to disestablish religion and to secularize politics, but the new nation could not base its identity on any one sectarian option and retain the loyalty of all its subjects. The needs of the modern state demanded that it be tolerant and, therefore, secular.”[38]

     The religious toleration of the United States has undoubtedly been a precious boon for the immigrants from many countries and of many faiths who have fled there to escape persecution. But it is based on a false assumption from an Orthodox Christian point of view. That assumption was well expressed by a law report in 1917: “If… the attitude of the law both civil and criminal towards all religions depends fundamentally on the safety of the State and not on the doctrines or metaphysics of those who profess them, it is not necessary to consider whether or why any given body was relieved by the law at one time or frowned on at another, or to analyse creeds and tenets, Christian and other.”[39]

     However, as we have seen, the idea that the safety of the State is completely independent of the religion confessed by its citizens is false. For, as Solomon says: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14.34). The history of the people of Israel, and of several New Testament nations, demonstrates that their prosperity depended crucially on their fulfilling of the commandments of God. The idea that the religion of a State has no bearing on its prosperity could occur only to a person who has not studied history (or any human science) or believes in a Deist conception of God as a Being Who created the world but does not interfere in its history thereafter. In fact, the religion, and hence the morality, of a nation’s rulers is a vitally important factor determining its destiny.

     Therefore, according to Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, the state has the duty to put some limits on religious freedom for the sake of preserving that religious consciousness which forms its own spirit. “The idea [of religious tolerance] appears good, but it is fair only when the subject and limits are precisely and correctly determined. The idea of protecting the unity of the ruling confession in the state (thereby preserving the popular spirit – a source of strength for the state and an important aid to governance) should come before the idea of religious tolerance and should impose limits on the latter.”[40]

     Also false is the idea that anyone worshipping “according to the dictates of his own conscience” is for that reason alone worthy of protection. “Conscience” very often refers, not to the real voice of God speaking in the soul of man, but to any voice, however demonic, that a man thinks is the voice of God. It is therefore inherently dangerous to consider a religion worthy of protection, not because it is objectively true, but because the believers are sincere in their beliefs, whether these are in fact true or false, profitable to society or profoundly harmful to it. False religion is always harmful, both for its adherents, and for those right-believers who are tempted away from the right path by them. We would never accept the argument that a poison can be sold freely so long as its traders sincerely believe it to be harmless or because the traders “are accountable to God alone” for the harm they cause. And the spiritual poison of heresy is far more harmful than material poison, in that it leads, not simply to the temporal dissolution of the body, but to the eternal damnation of the soul.

     Of course, it is another question how a false religion is to be combated. Crude persecution is counter-productive. Persuasionand education that respects the freewill of the heretic is undoubtedly the best means of combating false belief. Then he is able to come freely, with the help of God’s grace and by the free exercise of his reasoning power, to a knowledge of the truth.

     However,what about those who are too young to reason for themselves or for some other reason unable to exercise their reasoning powers? If allowed to live in a truly Christian atmosphere, these weak ones may become stronger in faith andhave less needof the protection of the State. But while they are still weak, the influence of heretics, if unchecked, could lead them astray. It is a generally accepted principle that the young and the weak are entitled to the protection of the State against those who would exploit their weakness to their destruction. So in cases where the heretic stubbornly continues to lead others astray, physical forms of oppression may be justified.The spiritually strong may refuse to offer physical resistance to religious evil, choosing instead the path of voluntary martyrdom. But the spiritually weak cannot choose this path, and must be protected from the evil, if necessary by physical means. Indeed, one could argue that the government that does not protect the weak in this way is itself persecuting them, laying them open to the most evil and destructive influences. For, as Sir Thomas More’s King Utopus understood, “the worst men be most obstinate and stubborn and in their evil opinion most constant”, so that without some restraint on them “the best and holiest religion would be trodden underfoot by most vain superstitions, even as good corn is by thorns and weeds overgrown and choked.”[41]


The Russian Idea 

     The arguments for and against religious toleration became especially fierce towards the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in Russia. Although the Orthodox Church retained a privileged position in Russia, as she had done in Byzantium, the restrictions on other confessions were light, and did not constitute religious persecution in any meaningful sense (in spite of much, especially Jewish, propaganda to the contrary). Moreover, many argued that if these restrictions were removed completely while keeping the Orthodox Church in the dependence on the State imposed on her by Peter the Great, the Orthodox Church would be in fact less free than other confessions. Nevertheless, liberals and atheists attacked the restrictions on non-Orthodox confessions in the name of freedom of conscience and the word.

     According to the famous St. Ambrose of Optina (+1891), this propaganda was entirely western in origin and was very harmful, especially to the educated people. “Was any benefit gained by religious tolerance in Russia in relation to foreign nations: the French and others, not to speak of the Jew, who, as a people rejected by God, is despised by all, and nowhere has any significance? Religious tolerance of the indicated nations could have no influence on the simple people, because the way of life of our simple people is completely different from the condition and situation of these nations: but in the circle of Russian educated people this religious tolerance had a great influence on morality and on their domestic way of life. Now many educated people bear only the name of Orthodox, but in actual fact completely adhere to the morals and customs of those of foreign lands and foreign beliefs. Without any torment of conscience they violate the regulations of the Orthodox Church concerning fasts and gather together at balls and dances on the eves of great Feasts of the Lord, when Orthodox Christians should be in church in prayerful vigil. This would be excusable if such gatherings took place on the eves of ordinary days, but not on the eves of Feasts, and especially great Feasts. Are not such acts and deeds clearly inspired by our enemy, the destroyer of souls, contrary to the commandment of the Lord which says: carry out your ordinary affairs for six days, but the seventh (festal) day must be devoted to God in pious service? How have Orthodox Christians come to such acts hated by God? It is for no other reason than indiscriminate communion with believers of other faiths…”[42]

     The liberals were especially aroused by the excommunication of the novelist Lev Tolstoy in 1901, although this was a purely internal affair of the Church, and amounted to no more than the public recognition – which Tolstoy himself did not dispute – that he no longer believed in Orthodoxy and so could no longer be counted as a member of the Orthodox Church.

     Much needed clarification was introduced into these debates by Archbishop Ambrose of Kharkov, who made an important distinction between freedom of conscience and all the other freedoms we have been discussing.

     “What, it seems, could be better,” he asked, “than to present to people the possibility of going freely along the path to the knowledge of the truth, without restraining or limiting them by other people’s influence? What could be better than the independent development in them of various mental powers and gifts? But in fact it turns out that for the majority a teacher and leader on the path to the truth is required, because they themselves do not find this path and often even do not see it and do not recognize it, although it is clearly indicated to them. Would it not be better to give people the opportunity to exercise their freedom in independent activity in accordance with the laws of Divine and human righteousness, without any interference of guides? Then one could only rejoice at the appearance in them of the special perfections of human nature that are particular to each person. But in fact it turns out that people sometimes so forget and trample on these laws that one has to put them in prison. If people are such in relation to the knowledge of the truth and in free activity in accordance with the laws of righteousness, then can they be different when they are alone with their conscience, which is the expression of the common condition of a man? Obviously not.”

     Archbishop Ambrose pointed out that the consciences of men are in very various conditions. Some have “crude, sensual” consciences, which remain unfeeling even when they have committed great crimes. Others “speak lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4.2). Others have “literalist” consciences, who will forgive great crimes, but not infringements of ritual rules. Still others have “fanatical” consciences, which in their zeal to spread their faith will not shrink from imposing their views on others by force. Others have “servile” consciences, which may be overwhelmed by the consciousness of their sins, but can find no way out of their condition. Still others have “fearful” consciences; they are overwhelmed and overcome by fear after committing merely trivial offences.

     And then there is the conscience of the saint, who, when he sins, immediately repents thoroughly and deeply, and recovers his habitual peace of mind and joy of heart. Only this conscience is truly free, being able to retain its equilibrium and clarity even under conditions of the fiercest persecution. This freedom consists “not in external rights and advantages, social and political, but in the unshakeable feeling of inner peace, in the inner liberation of the spirit from all hindrances to the observance of the law that arise in the damaged nature of man.”

     It follows that there is an important distinction between freedom of conscience, which depends on the moral condition of a man, and freedom of the press, of the word, of religion, etc. The latter, external freedoms may or may not advance the inner freedom that is freedom of conscience. They are justified if they do promote inner freedom in the given situation, and not justified if they do not. It is the task of the ruler to discern when they are justified and when they are not.

     “And so,” concludes Archbishop Ambrose, “we must seek for freedom of conscience, not in the sphere of earthly rights, but in the sphere of spiritual perfections. We must expect it, not from state laws, but from our own moral labours and exploits, and ask for it, not from earthly kings and rulers, but from the Lord God. As regards the broadening of rational freedom in public life, we must discuss freedom of thought, freedom of the word, freedom of convictions, freedom of confession, but not freedom of conscience. All these varieties of freedom can only be paths to freedom of conscience, but it itself stands higher than them. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (II Corinthians 3.17).”[43]

     So freedom of conscience is the ultimate, absolute value, while all the other varieties of freedom are only valuable relatively speaking, depending on their contribution to the absolute value, and can be evil if they do not contribute to it. Russian society was soon to see the point of this distinction when Tsar Nicholas II issued his ukaz of April 17, 1905, the Sunday of Pascha, “On the Strengthening of the Principles of Religious Toleration”, which removed most of the restrictions on the non-Orthodox confessions. The result was not universal peace and joy, but a horrific explosion of anti-Orthodox and anti-monarchist feeling…

     St. John of Kronstadt was one of those highly critical of the decree, seeing it as one product of the revolutionary unrest: “Look what is happening in this kingdom at the present time: everywhere students and workers are on strike; everywhere there is the noise of parties who have as their goal the overthrowing of the true monarchical order established by God, everywhere the dissemination of insolent, senseless proclamations, disrespect for the authority of the ruling powers established by God, for ‘there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God’: children and young people imagine that they are the master and commanders of their own fates; marriage has lost all meaning for many and divorces at will have multiplied to endlessness; many children are left to the whims of fate by unfaithful spouses; some kind of senselessness and arbitrariness rule… Finally, an unpunished conversion from Orthodoxy into any faith whatever is allowed [by the Decree of April 17, 1905]; even though the same Lord we confess designated death in the Old Testament for those denying the law of Moses.

     “If matters continue like this in Russia and the atheists and the anarchist-crazies are not subjected to the righteous retribution of the law, and if Russia is not cleansed of its many tares, then it will become desolate like the ancient kingdoms and cities wiped out by God’s righteous judgement from the face of the earth for their godlessness and their wickedness: Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Greece-Macedonia.

     “Hold fast, then, Russia, to your faith, and your Church, and to the Orthodox Tsar if you do not wish to be shaken by people of unbelief and lawlessness and if you do not wish to be deprived of your Kingdom and the Orthodox Tsar. But if you fall away from your faith, as many intelligenty have fallen away, then you will no longer by Russia or Holy Rus’, but a rabble of all kinds of other faiths that wish to destroy one another.”

     The situation was not improved, but made worse, by the publication of the Manifesto of October 17, which granted “real personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association” to all. Now there was no bar on the most blasphemous and hate-filled revolutionary propaganda. The result: the revolution of 1905, which almost overturned the Russian State. Even after the revolution had been crushed, the freedoms remained in place; with the result that unrestrained slander against the Tsar and the Church continued until the unprecedented tragedy of 1917. So unfettered freedom led to the most repressive and God-hating tyranny in history…



     The following conclusions can be drawn from the above discussion:-

1.      Since man is by nature free and rational, he cannot be brought to a knowledge of the truth through the essentially irrational means of physical coercion, although physical punishments such as imprisonment may help him indirectly by humbling his pride. For the Christian, the aim of the Christian life is freedom of conscience in the sense of complete inner freedom to do God’s will. External freedoms are valued only to the extent that they contribute to, and do not hinder, the attainment of inner, spiritual freedom. 

2.      Although free in essence, man, because of youth or weakness of will or mind, can be physically coerced into renunciation of his faith by evil tyrants, or seduced by evil teachers into heresy or unbelief. It is the duty of the Christian, as an individual and in society, to do everything in his power to protect his weaker brethren from such a disaster. The justification of censorship and those restrictions on freedom – and restrictions of some kind are to be found in all societies - is that while man is free according to his original nature, some men are less free than others by virtue of their youth or lack of education. And their freedom is further weakened by being brought into bondage by evil ideas and passions. Once a man has been infected by false ideas, the only cure is reasoned argument, education; we cannot convert him by force. But we can reasonably limit his freedom to infect others, especially the intellectually weak and children, and thereby lead them into false religion and immorality.

3.      In the Christian State, some restriction of freedom of speech, press and assembly in order to restrict the influence of evil teachers is in accordance with reason and has always been blessed by the Church. For we should remember that the present disastrous state of the world has been brought about in large measure by the cult of freedom carried to irrational extremes. The most illiberal and anti-religious State in history, the Soviet Union, was brought into being largely through the infiltration of liberal ideas from the West into Russia and their acceptance in the educated layers of society and eventually by the Russian State. We should always remember that external freedoms can be used for evil as well as for good.

4.      In the non-Christian State, the influence of evil teachers will inevitably be dominant. And so restrictions will be placed not, for example, on atheism or blasphemy or homosexuality, but on racism or sexism or “religious exclusivism”. In such circumstances, while trying to guard themselves from the evil influence exerted by these teachers, Christians will be in favour of such freedoms as will enable them to worship and practise their faith without persecution. Contemporary Orthodox Christians have special reason to value religious toleration, in that we form a very small minority in almost every contemporary state, and would almost certainly be subjected to persecution if some such principle were not in force.

5.      Religious toleration should never be confused with ecumenism – that is, the idea that all religions are in principle equal. In fact, it is the combination of the idea of religious toleration with ecumenism in modern societies that constitutes probably the greatest contemporary threat to religious freedom. For if all religions are considered equal, it becomes a crime to say that any one of them is superior or truer than the others. Thus religious indifference ultimately leads to a resumption of religious persecution… It follows that religious toleration must be exercised together with religious discrimination – that is, discrimination in favour of the one true religion. And if that is not possible in any contemporary society, insofar as none of them is ruled by Orthodox Christian rulers, we must nevertheless work for the establishment of those laws and habits which make it easier for men to come to a knowledge of the truth and true morality and escape from the snares of falsehood. For in the final analysis, it is not religious freedom that is the ultimate value, but religious truth, since, as the Lord says, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8.32).


Vladimir Moss.

July 16/29, 2004; revised on November 8/21, 2006 and April 3/16, 2010.


[1] Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 4.

[2] Zagorin, op. cit., p. 21.

[3] Quoted in Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, London: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 637.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, quoted by Fr. Antonious Henein, orthodox-tradition@egroups.com, 8 August, 2000.

[5] Patapios, “On Caution regarding Anathematization”, Orthodox Tradition, vol. XVII, 1, January, 2000, p. 22.

[6] Moreover, in 392 the Emperors Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius decreed that pagans should “forfeit that house or landholding in which it is proved that [they] served a pagan superstition” (XVI, 10, 2). (V.M.)

[7] Zagorin, op. cit., pp. 23, 24.

[8] St. Ambrose, Letter 40, quoted in Sergius Fomin and Tamara Fomina, Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1994, vol. I, p. 69 (in Russian).

[9] Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, London: Phoenix, 1987, 1995, p. 164.

[10] Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin of Tours.

[11] Zagorin, op. cit., pp. 26-32, 33.

[12] Tikhomirov, “O Smysle Vojny” (“On the Meaning of War”), in Khristianstvo i Politika (Christianity and Politics), Moscow: GUP “Oblizdat”, 1999, pp. 206-207 (in Russian).    

[13] Bernard, In Praise of the New Knighthood, in Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe, London: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 487-488.

[14] Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994, p. 65.

[15] Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe, London: SCM Press, 1999, p. 125.

[16] Ehrenreich, Blood Rites, London: Virago Press, 1998, p. 172.

[17] Henry Bettenson andChris Maunder,Documents of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, third edition, 1999, p. 147.

[18] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, ii. Q. xi; in Bettenson & Maunder, op. cit., pp. 147-148.

[19] Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London: Bantam Press, 1988, p. 164.

[20] More, Utopia, book II, pp. 119-120.

[21] In Dialogue concerning Heresies (1529), More advocated the execution of the new breed of heretics, the Protestants. He himself was executed by Henry VIII for his faithfulness to the Pope.

[22] Edwards, in Roy Porter, Enlightenment, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 105.

[23]Zagorin, op. cit., p. 80.

[24] Porter, op. cit., p. 50.

[25] Hobbes, Leviathan; in Christopher Hill, “Thomas Hobbes and the Revolution in Political Thought”, Puritanism and Revolution, London: Penguin books, 1958, p. 277.

[26] Hobbes, Leviathan; in Hill, Puritanism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 283.

[27] According to the principles of this father of liberalism, therefore, communist parties should be banned, as well as the expression of communist opinions, first, because communists are atheists, and therefore cannot be trusted to keep their oaths, and secondly because they work towards the destruction of all non-communist governments. (V.M.)

[28] Porter, op. cit., pp. 106-197.

[29] Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration (1689).

[30] A.L. Smith, “English Political Philosophy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, in The Cambridge Modern History, vol. VI; The Eighteenth Century, 1909, p. 813.

[31] Bettenson & Maunder, op. cit., p. 342.

[32] This put an end to pre-publication censorship. From now on, as Porter remarks, “though laws against blasphemy, obscenity and seditious libel remained on the statute book, and offensive publications could still be presented before the courts, the situation was light years away from that obtaining in France, Spain or almost anywhere else in ancien régime Europe.” (op. cit., p. 31).

[33] Porter, op. cit., p. 108.

[34] Porter, op. cit., pp. 21-22.

[35] Isaiah Berlin, “Nationalism”, in The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Pimlico, 1998, p. 581.

[36] According to Enlightenment philosophers, “physical matter in identical circumstances would always behave in the same way: all stones dropped from a great height fall to the ground. What applied to the physical world applied to the human world too. All human beings in human circumstances other than their own would act in very different ways. How human beings conducted themselves was not accidental, but the accident of birth into particular societies at particular moments in those societies’ development determined what kinds of people they would eventually turn out to be. The implications of this view were clear: if you were born in Persia, instead of France, you would have been a Muslim, not a Catholic; if you had been born poor and brought up in bad company you would probably end up a thief; if you had been born a Protestant in northern Europe, rather than a Catholic in southern Europe, then you would be tolerant and love liberty, whereas southerners tended to be intolerant and to put up with autocratic government. If what human beings were like was the necessary effect of the circumstances they were born to, then nobody had a right to be too censorious about anybody else. A certain toleration of other ways of doing things, and a certain moderation in the criticism of social and political habits, customs and institutions, seemed the natural corollary of the materialistic view of mankind” (McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 297).

[37] Leontiev, “Vizantizm i Slavianstvo” (“Byzantinism and Slavism”), in Vostok, Rossia i Slavianstvo (The East, Russia and Slavism), Moscow, 1996, p. 124 (in Russian). As a matter of fact, the Puritans of Massachusetts and Long Island were far from tolerant in the beginning. The impetus to toleration came mainly from the Quakers of Pennsylvania.

[38] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: a History of Fundamentalism, New York: Ballantine Books, 2001, p. 85.

[39] Bowman v. Secular Society, Litd. (1917) A.C. 406. Quoted in Huntingdon Cairns (ed.), The Limits of Art, Washington D.C.: Pantheon Books, 1948, p. 1353.

[40] Quoted in George Frazee, “Skeptical Reformer, Staunch Tserkovnik: Metropolitan Philaret and the Great Reforms”, in Vladimir Tsurikov (ed.), Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow 1782-1867, Jordanville: Variable Press, 2003, pp. 169-170.

[41] More, Utopia, book II, pp. 119-120.

[42] St. Ambrose, in Sergius and Tamara Fomin, Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow: Rodnik, 1994, vol. 2, p. 90 (in Russian).

[43] Archbishop Ambrose, “O Svobode Sovesti” (On Freedom of Conscience), in Polnoe Sobranie Propovedej, volume 2, Kharkov, 1902 (in Russian).



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