The Church as an institution, in general, has not had a great history with respect to political power or the subjugation of religious liberties to political agenda. This is not a critique of every individual that has ever been a part of the Church, but of the institutional overreach at times. To redress the balance, I believe the Church should take responsibility for its rights and freedoms and place a higher priority on actively promoting them. It should be a space and voice that amplifies the values of liberty and freedom, standing up for those who are oppressed, and leading by example in embracing that which makes society a more free and liberal one.

In recent years, our conversations about rights, freedoms, and the role of religion have heightened. The fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with debates concerning secularism and the public use of religious symbols, are all integral parts of present social and political life. In the West, we have experienced a long, gradual, and complex process of disentangling religious institutions, and to an extent, beliefs, from political power. We have reached a societal agreement that public policy and law in a democratic context should not be an expression of one religious ideology over another, or any religion at all. That said, the historical experience of the Church also informs us that religious institutions have both supported and hindered this process. It is time for the Church to wholeheartedly endorse the rights and freedoms we have won—and, indeed, often fought for—to ensure they are fully maintained and defended. The Church can and, indeed, ought to play an active part in safeguarding them for the greater good of our societies, recognizing how closely linked they are to the gospel message of individual dignity and human rights.

The Church’s Contested Past

Historians like Yale University’s Timothy Patrick Martin[1] document how throughout the ages, Christian faith intertwined with the political realm, in most cases for the purpose of establishing and preserving theocracies or Christian dominated states. Martin demonstrates that the Christian imperial project was guided by Christian convictions on both sides of the conflict—from Constantine, the Roman Emperor who became a Christian, to the Viking king Olaf Tryggvason or the Normans in England. He persuasively argues that this was done with the express intention to serve Christendom and to promote Christian values by force where necessary.

Historically, the Church supported monarchies and feudal systems that espoused oppression, restriction, and illiberal ideas under the guise of “God’s anointed.” One such example was the 16^{th}-century Spanish Inquisition, when Church and State worked closely together to suppress so-called heresy. Another example is the Salem Witch Trials in colonial New England in the late 17^{th} century, instigated by religious fervor and panic. Then there were the centuries of enforced celibacy on monks and nuns, which was portrayed as a means of removing distraction and growing holiness. This practice reflects a certain control and patriarchal overreach.

It’s also important to remember the ways the Church resisted emncipatory trends. The German historian Hubert Jedin’s[2] works detail a 300-year fight against the secularist idea, where the Vatican openly expressed concerns over the spread of education and freedom of conscience.[3] The Church didn’t embrace these ideas until they became almost unavoidable social realities. The open hostility to the French Revolution by the Papacy, who saw it as a demonic assault against the only true religion, is well documented. The Church’s early response to the rise of socialism in 19^{th}-century Europe also reflects a wary and reactive posture.

Responsibility for Present Realities

In contrast to this past, religious organizations have come to recognize the importance of embracing human rights and extending religious freedom to all. The last 70 years have witnessed an impressive turnaround, leading to active efforts to support marginalized groups and initiatives. Notably, the Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican Churches, along with several ecumenical organizations, have led campaigns in favor of human dignity and equality for LGBTQIA+ people. The World Council of Churches, founded in 1948, has actively engaged in dialogue between religions and promoted peace, justice, freedom, and human rights.

Today, a large number of theologians, progressive pastors, and organizations such as Church & State and Political Theology Today maintain that the message of the gospel includes a commitment to social justice, human dignity, and the defense of the vulnerable. They work tirelessly to counter antidemocratic narratives and the misuse of biblical texts to legitimize hierarchical, conservative, or exclusive interpretations.

In this context, we find a different Church—one that is taking responsibility for its newfound respect for personal freedoms, individual choice, and diversity. This contemporary stance is a far cry from the old authoritarian paradigm, which manipulated people’s lives for the sake of a divine mandate. But there is still a long way to go, as a commitment to these principles needs to become foundational rather than an add-on.

An Institutional, Proactive Role

Taking the rich discussions we have about rights, freedoms, and the role of religion seriously requires an active, proactive role on the part of the institutional Church. In light of the Church’s past misuses of power and the reactive quality of its stance historically, a key challenge now is to engage the complex interplays of religion and politics, particularly in contexts where people fear the return of a totalitarian or illiberal regime.

One possible way forward is for the Church to formally endorse the principles of democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. Such a declaration would be an explicit sign of commitment and disapproval of any ideology or group trying to undermine these fundamental values. The Church could draft an official document outlining a shared vision and methodological approach, inspired by historical moments such as the 1965 Vatican II documents. These included Nostra Aetate (on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions) and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).

A further step might involve the formation of a network of progressive theologians, liturgists, and religious leaders working in close collaboration with human right groups, antidiscrimination movements, and liberal democrats. They could collaborate at the local, national, and international levels to identify and challenge retrograde policies or doctrines, and seek to subvert and expose their logic.

In the end, the defense of the public sphere for and through the Church will involve a refocusing of the Church’s institutional mission, taking great care to engage meaningfully with pressing social, political and human rights issues. It will require the full endorsement of the liberal-democratic ethos, overcoming the remaining resistance from a select few or groups. If the Church really believes in the gospel message of human freedom, human dignity, and the rights of the vulnerable, it must unapologetically align itself with the broader process of building and sustaining a just, free, and secure world, not least so that the needless suffering of the past may not be repeated again.

[1] T. P. Martin, The Christians, The Barbarians, and the Birth of Europe: An Opinionated History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] H. Jedin, History of the Church, Vol. 3 (New York: Crossroad, 1981).

[3] T. Söderlund, Science, Medicine and the Reformation: A Historical Exploration of Theological Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 140.