Religion and National Loyalty

Larry W. Hurtado on the origins of religious pluralism

In its first two centuries, early Christianity effectively laid the basis for religious pluralism. That is, early Christianity introduced the novel idea that religion and the state, religion and ethnicity, and religion and social bonds did not always have to be connected. Early Christian thinkers such as Tertullian (early third century) formulated the first powerful arguments for religious freedom, too, and insisted that they were loyal citizens, even if they didn’t subscribe to the official religion of the Roman Empire. In distinguishing between political loyalty and religious conformity, early Christians arguably provided the first steps toward modern, pluralist societies.

It’s now a fundamental assumption in most modern societies that people don’t have to share the same religion to be loyal citizens, or to be accepted as full members of their family or ethnic group. But that notion is comparatively recent and rare in the longer history of the planet. The more typical view was (and in many cultures remains) that conformity in religion was required as an expression of solidarity with your family, your people, and your ruler. So any serious religious diversity or dissent raised questions about your loyalty to these groups.

Today, even in societies such as the USA with a history of religious pluralism, there are sometimes misguided concerns about religious differences. The anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish stance of the Ku Klux Klan is well known. In the 1960 presidential race there were some who claimed that John Kennedy’s Roman Catholic allegiance raised questions about his loyalty to the US Constitution. More recently, some demagogic voices have questioned whether Muslims can be true Americans. As well, of course, religious change or dissent can make for serious and painful personal tensions, and accusations of betrayal or disloyalty to family or people. For example, a member of a Jewish family who becomes Buddhist or Christian can experience accusations of disloyalty to the family and the Jewish people. Similarly, Greek families might well expect all members to be Greek Orthodox.

Nevertheless, in principle, in modern societies we tend to think of ethnicity (for example, being Italian, Argentinian, Nigerian, or Filipino) and religious affiliation (for example, being Christian, Muslim, or Hindu) as two quite distinguishable things. As a reflection of this, in a national census form we’ll typically be asked to indicate our ethnicity or racial derivation in one question and any religious affiliation in another. But we likely have little knowledge of when and where this idea first appeared.

Early Christianity, especially in the first three centuries, effectively created the distinction between ethnicity and religion. In the early Roman era religion and ethnicity were seamlessly connected. Individuals got their gods with their birth into a given family, city, or people. They could also take up additional gods and religious affiliations in any of the various new religious movements of the time, such as Mithraism or the Isis cult. But the crucial point is that this didn’t conflict with or involve departing from their inherited religious affiliation and activities. They continued to join in reverencing their traditional gods of family or city. Early Christianity, however, was something different. To become a conscientious adherent of early Christianity meant to abandon the gods of your family, city, or people, aligning yourself exclusively with “the one true and living God” of Christian teaching. Certainly, given the social pressures and costs of this stance, a good many Christians made various compromises. But whatever they did to negotiate their existence, Christians, alone of religious groups in the Roman world, had to make such decisions about how to combine their divergent faith with their traditional ties to their family, their city, and the Empire.

Of course, Judaism of that time, the mother-tradition of early Christianity, also insisted on an exclusive allegiance to this one God. But in Jewish tradition, too, religious affiliation was linked to ethnicity, for full pagan converts to the Jewish God, called proselytes, also changed their ethnicity. They were to abandon their ethnic origins as well as their gods, and become new, adoptive members of the Jewish people.

In early Christian teaching, however, adherents, whether Jewish or pagan, were to remain a part of their family, their city, and their people. They may have made a radical religious conversion to Christian faith, especially in the case of pagan converts, but that didn’t change their ethnicity. They didn’t renounce or abandon their ties to family or people. This stance effectively comprised a new concept of what we would call a “religious identity,” one distinguishable from ethnicity. Furthermore, in earliest Christian teaching authentic religious allegiance had to be a choice, a voluntary move. In early Christian parlance, personal “faith” was essential. And authentic Christian faith involved a person’s own affirmation of his or her allegiance to the Christian message. Although there were household conversions involving most or all members, there are also many examples of Christian individuals living in pagan households, such as Christian wives married to pagan husbands, and Christian slaves of pagan masters.

Additionally, this early Christian view of faith logically calls for the social and political “space” in which to choose, as freely as possible, whether to give assent or not. In this view of the matter, constraint or coercion actually works against the exercise of authentic faith, as portrayed in early Christian writings. That is, early Christianity had profound theological reasons for urging freedom for people to make their own decisions about religion.

In the earliest centuries of Christianity (prior to Constantine), we see the first programmatic emergence of a religious identity fully distinguishable from ethnicity, and the earliest demands for religious freedom. Ironically in light of its stance in the first few centuries, an emphasis on religious conformity as a component of political loyalty became dominant in the centuries of European Christendom, and religious dissent was often harshly suppressed. But, arguably, the stance of earliest Christianity helped to set in motion dynamics that gathered other forces across subsequent centuries and led to the distinction that is now widely accepted between religious affiliation and ethnicity or political loyalty. We know, for example, that Thomas Jefferson had read and noted Tertullian’s plea for religious freedom. And that distinction between religious affiliation and social and political loyalty made possible the religiously pluralistic societies that should characterize modern democracies. So Christians in particular have good historical and traditional reasons today to continue to support religious freedom and the pluralistic societies that enable people to make religious choices without coercion. If true to their earliest tradition, Christians should be among those who support a genuinely free society in matters of religion, and oppose any coercion or suppression of religious freedom.

For more on earliest Christianity, see Larry W. Hurtado, author of Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

Larry W. Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology, University of Edinburgh. His books include Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins(Eerdmans, 2006), and Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).