In Tzefunot 1, D. Z. Hillman's article arguing that the Meiri's "policy of tolerance" was formulated merely out of fear of the censors and is not to be taken seriously. Since this article has been placed online (here), I would like to analyse this view in light of the Meiri's background.
Hillman's argument (as I understand it) is that the Meiri's comments seem to be placed in a parenthetical "disclaimer" form, as if they were written in order to convince a non-jewish rather then as a serious position. Now to the best of my knowledge since Beis HaBechira is basically a paraphrase of the Talmud with parenthetical explanations, I do not think this argument has much merit on its own.
In any event, there are several questions that need to be discussed first. If this view of Meiri is generally consistent with that of his teachers, his general philosophical background,etc. then the view must be accepted as is and there is no reason to invoke a mythical censor. (Hillman's stray "proofs" for the existence of censorship prior to the advent of printing come from a mixture of times and places and can hardly be taken as serious proof that the Meiri would have had this problem.) Do the Meiri's other writings demonstarte a fear of censorship? Finally, what sort of people were the Meiri's "Gentiles" and how would he be likely to view them?
There is a fairly thorough study of Meiri -"Gregg Stern - Meiri and the Second Controversy over Philosophy (Ph.d Harvard - 1995)" - that I will attempt to make use of to clarify the Meiri's position on the above.
1 - The basic idea of distinguishing between pagans and Christians is already present in earlier writings (See the Vicuach of Rabbenu Yechiel of Paris). If Meiri's position was only formulated in response to the censors, then there was no reason for him to create a new Halachic category of "nations who are constrained by religious laws" with far reaching Halachic implications. Merely to avoid the censors it would have been sufficient to note the old distinction between pagans and Christians. (N.B Would it really have been necessary to place "nations who are..." within the category of "אין מזל בישראל" solely for fear of the censor? (See B.B. Shabbos 614))
2- The basic distinction was first made in a Halachic non-apologetic context. Thus the following statement of Rabbenu Tam:
R. Tam allows [the administration of an oath to a Christian], because this case is as if he is rescuing [his property] from their hands . . . furthermore, R, Tam demonstrates, from that case mentioned, the last chapter of Megilla, whet Abuha bar Ihi said: “May I be rewarded because I never established a partnership with a Cuthean” (Megilla, 28a). Now, if partnership with a gentile is forbidden, why should he have mentioned [that he had not transgressed the above injunction] it? . . . Moreover, R. Tam explained that in these days all [Christians] swear by their saints, and although they mention with them the name of God, meaning with it something else (i.e. Jesus), this is not idolatrous name, since they mean with it, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. And although they associate the name of God with something else (i.e. Jesus) . . . non-Jews are not forbidden on that [to associate another being; with God]
(Bechoros 2b s.v. Shema - translation from Faur - Legal thinking of the Tosafists)
certainly was not written for any apologetic intentions, but for purely legal purposes. It seems to me that the Meiri's position should be understood as an expansion of this opinion of Rabbenu Tam.
3- That the study of philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Rambam, was a major force in Provence is well documented. Now the Rambam in a famous passage at the end of Shmitta V' Yovel writes:
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do...such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever.
Menachem Kellner in his post at Seforim has shown that in this Rambam refers to "unconverted) Gentiles who, through their devotion to God, become "as consecrated as the Holy of Holies." Rambam here is talking about God's support of all human beings who consecrate themselves...". It seems highly probable that Meiri's position is taken straight from this Rambam. In both cases we see the possibility of a Gentile by virtue of consecration to God, or by being constrained by religious laws is placed on a higher status. (See Hillman No. 45, ודוק)
[Update: See here for further discussion on this point. (Hat tip: Menachem Mendel)]