“Religious Liberty before Liberalism: Tertullian and the Origins of North-African Christian Political Philosophy” Jed W. Atkins (Duke University)

Feb 1, 2024, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
Corwin Hall, Room 127
Open to Princeton University ID Holders


Event Description


The past three decades have witnessed a renaissance in attention given to Roman political thought by scholars of ancient literature, history, philosophy, and the history of political thought. Of the riches gleaned from this scholarly labor, the most impactful for normative work in political theory has been the idea of liberty as non-domination. This conception of liberty moves beyond concerns with the interference of agents’ actions to focus on whether they are subject to another’s arbitrary will. The idea of freedom as non-domination is central to the extensive normative work in Republican political theory developed over the last thirty years and has been productively applied to many issues, including immigration and migration, race, punishment, education, economic theory, and constitutional theory. With the significant exception of Cécile Laborde, theorists of republicanism have overlooked religion. This is a significant omission, for demographic predictions suggest that religious communities will continue to shape national and global politics in profound ways. My talk seeks to raise some important normative concerns for republican accounts of religious liberty through an act of historical recovery.

The first philosophical defense of religious freedom emerged, not in the wake of post-Reformation wars of religion or in the writings of Medieval cannon lawyers and Jewish and Christian Renaissance Humanists, but in the second-century Apology, written by the North-African Christian rhetorician, Tertullian. In this work, Tertullian drew on developments within Roman law and on Cicero’s political philosophy to defend “the freedom of religion” (libertas religionis) for minority Christian and Jewish communities on the grounds that their freedom and flourishing requires that they be non-dominated. Roman magistrates should grant space to all communities to engage in the intersubjective processes of defining the common good and ensure, whatever the outcome of this process, that all enjoy the protection of equal rights and equality before the law to practice their religion.

The Apology was read closely by Tertullian’s North-African successors Lactantius and Augustine, who between them raised further questions: do all individual human beings possess the right to be free from domination? Does the concept of non-domination, if applied to religious communities, carry with it limits? If so, where and how should they be drawn? How, and on what grounds, can non-dominated minority religious communities be expected to recognize the authority of magistrates and support common enterprises with those who do not share their conception of the good? These questions, first raised in a pre-liberal context in which Christianity did not predominate, provide fertile grounds for future work for those of us living in secularizing liberal societies in which traditional religious communities will continue to grow.


Jed W. Atkins is the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Duke University. He directs The Transformative Ideas Program as well as The Civil Discourse Project and chairs the Department of Classical Studies. A scholar of Greek, Roman, and early Christian moral and political philosophy, Atkins has published three books with Cambridge University Press: Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason, Roman Political Thought, and The Cambridge Companion to Cicero’s Philosophy (co-edited with Thomas Bénatouïl). His fourth book, The Christian Origins of Tolerance, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

  • University Center for Human Values
  • Department of Politics