To some early modern thinkers, a primary concern was that governments protect, or at least not threaten, individuals’ liberty to believe what they wish about God and other matters. Yet the American Constitution goes further, guaranteeing “the free exercise” of religion. This broader definition is of particular import to Jews, for whom practice is paramount. In his review of Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God, John Inazu explores this distinction:
Conscience is indeed important to the history of religious freedom. But religious practice is sustained and transmitted through religious communities. . . . The role of religious communities is [therefore] not a subsidiary motif of religious freedom but integral to its proper understanding and defense.
Fortunately, most of Liberty in the Things of God underscores exactly this point. For example, Wilken notes that the Christian writer Tertullian, the first Western thinker to use the phrase “freedom of religion,” defended Christians against charges that their gatherings amounted to “illegal factions.” As Wilken observes, “Tertullian was defending the rights of Christians to assemble for worship, to organize, to choose leaders, to care for one another, even to have their own burial places for their dead.”
The kind of religious freedom that allows us to live in peace in a pluralistic society depends upon a careful parsing of two paired ideas: (1) public and private; and (2) individual and communal. Religious practice is public as well as private and communal as well as individual. This means religious freedom must not be limited to either individual or private religion.