Religious liberty is a relatively new concept. For most of human history, no one seriously challenged the power of governments to regulate religious activity. For example, early Christians were persecuted for three centuries by the established pagan government of Rome. Then, when the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, he simply replaced one established religion with another, and started persecuting non-Christians.
The religious wars that took place in Europe during the Reformation were often so violent because what was at stake was the political supremacy of the victor. Although many of the leading figures of Christian thought – such as St. Augustine and John Calvin – attempted to separate in theory the civil power from ecclesiastical authority, in practice they were frequently comingled.
It is often said that some of the first European settlers in North America traveled to the New World “seeking religious freedom.” However, in reality, they were often seeking freedom for their own sect; they did not hope to establish a haven of religious freedom for all. Consider the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame. Their founding document, the Mayflower Compact, is a “covenant” to unite under one “Body Politick.” It states that their journey was “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country.”