February 14, 2013

Are There Limits to Religious Liberty?


(Source: holy-icons.com)

by Nathaniel D. Torrey (@nathanieltorrey)

I had the privilege of attending a briefing on religious freedom issues in Eurasia and states in the former Soviet Union last week. It featured many speakers from Russian, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, including Anatoliy Pchenlintsev, Co-Chairman of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, and Ivan Pashkevich, former Deputy Chief of Staff for President Lukashenko of Belarus.

To say the least, religious liberty’s existence in that part of the world is precarious and sometimes practically non-existent. One of the speakers had an entirely different person read his contribution so that he would not be punished by the law. This is in Uzbekistan, where practicing Christianity as effectively become “illegal, as any items connected God, like calendars, posters, CDs, books, etc.- all become illegal to possess. Also any meeting of Christians, including parties and birthday celebrations, come under [the] category of unlawful religious activity!”

In Uzbekistan, what many Christians fear in the face of measures like the HHS mandate have become a reality; the public square is being effectively cleansed of Christianity and has been relegated to the private sphere. One can be religious in your home or Church, but to display one’s religion or to make religiously informed decisions in the public square is forbidden.

However, the situation in Russia regarding religious liberty is a peculiar one. Russia is officially a secular nation that protects freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Unofficially, the Russian Orthodox Church is given legal preference over other religions, including other Christian denominations. This has become especially apparent when members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot staged a “punk protest” in Christ Our Savior Cathedral in Moscow and were given harsh sentences. Since this incident anti-blasphemy laws have been proposed that would punish the desecration of worship places and religious symbols. However most of these laws are phrased to protect only “traditional” or “historical” religions, which include Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Roman Catholics and Protestant sects, though technically being defended by the Russian Constitution, may be excluded if this language takes hold.

The situation in Russia has made me wonder about the limits of religious liberty. Whether we admit it or not, we recognize that freedom of conscience and religion is not an absolute right. No one objects that anyone’s religious liberty is trampled when we take the children of polygamous cults into social services, or prosecute cult leaders when they have child brides, ritual cannibalism, or other perverse rituals even if those practices are in some way consensual. We also don’t tolerate Muslim radicals who want to kill innocent people because they believe they are doing what their religion asks of them. We generally recognize that the things they teach are false and over all harmful. There are certain damages to the human person that trump the right to religious liberty and conscience. We know that any religion that approves of pedophilia or suicide bombers is no religion worth following and should not be permitted in any polity.

It is interesting that we are willing to say religious liberty is limited in this way, when it causes physical or “mental” harm to a person, but when it comes to spiritual matters we are willing to let any religion have its way. We have accepted hook line and sinker the political thought of the Enlightenment that began with Hobbes—that as long as no harm is being done, everything is permissible. The argument assumes a kind of tacit agnosticism, that how one relates to God is at best difficult to know and perhaps impossible. If that is true, the only restriction on thought can be if it leads to force. For Christianity in particular it assumes a kind of relativism about how one is saved by Christ and how participation in the Church brings this about. Questions about the nature of the Eucharist,ecclesiology, and even certain doctrines about the communion of the Saints and the role of the Virgin Mary and the like are simply seen as matters of taste.

The Russian Orthodox Church does not claim to be merely one way to Christ among other equally valid ways so long as they aren’t physically harming anyone. In their eyes, along with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, they are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They see the other Christian confessions as either a watered down version of the Faith at best or heretical and harmful at worst. The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations make this claim as well.

If the Russian Orthodox Church claims it knows it is the way, not a way, to save the souls of the people of Russia, doesn’t it stand to reason that they would embrace a position of prestige in order to save the most souls? Imagine a society that tolerated malpractice in hospitals because the doctors doing it believed and felt strongly that their way was the right way while down the street there was a hospital that had the means of truly healing people. The local sheriff knocks on their door, offering to arrest those doing malpractice. Aren’t the people who know how to heal ethically responsible if they allow false teachings free reign?

This line of thinking is very alien to us Americans. After all, most of our religious heritage has been passed down to us from dissident Protestant minorities who fled churches that were backed by the law, such as the Puritans fleeing the Church of England. According to the church and law of their homelands, our religious ancestors were guilty of spiritual malpractice. The idea that a church could believe it alone possessed the narrow road to salvation seems so naturally reprehensible to most of us as to appear self-evident. Christians that are “traditional” or “orthodox” by American standards never have any problem saying that Christianity alone is the only way to salvation in regards to other religions. However, as soon as someone claims that their particular confession of Christianity is the only way to salvation, they are met with all the same arguments that progressives and liberals throw at Christianity generally: that it is being exclusive, narrow minded, divisive, bigoted, etc.

I would like to emphasize these are just some thoughts I had as I attended the conference, most of which are tentative. I do not think we should throw out religious liberty, I believe it to be a major blessing. But what if a commitment to objective truth means that we cannot accept religious liberty or liberty of conscience as absolute rights? What if talking about belief as a right actually cripples an investigation into the truth of the content of those beliefs?

I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comment section below.


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  • http://Pryor Walt

    More proof of the End of all Time. The beginnings of a campaign against Christians. You will see! The new World Church will be promoted but the true church of God will be persecuted, through twisted and perverted logic.

  • Mark

    The problem is that spiritual malpractice is typically harder to detect than medical malpractice. The results of medical malpractice can be seen rather soon after the act…spiritual malpractice may not be evident until years later (e.g., look at the legacy of the 60’s on today’s culture). That’s why the objective study of history, especially Christian history, is so important and why it’s such a tragedy that so many in today’s church ignore it.

    If practices claimed to be protected by religious freedom obviously harm the well-being of innocent people, especially their physical well-being, then these practices exceed the limits of religious freedom (e.g., “mercy killings,” etc.).

    Determining whether religious practices may harm in terms of psychological well-being is much more subjective (and, as mentioned, often only realized retrospectively), and that subjectivity is being expecially exploited by the political and religious Left (e.g., reparative therapy for same-sex attraction, etc.). Therefore, with the exception of things like physical harm, wide latitude should be given regarding the expression of religion.

    Conversely, If secular society violates principles of religious freedom with respect to jeopardizing the lives of, say, unborn children, then secular society has clearly infringed not just on the right of religious freedom but on the moral conscience of many people who may not identify with a particular faith but whose general thinking is informed by the Judeo-Christian ethos.

    • cken

      What is your scientific basis for thinking “same sex attraction” is a psychological disorder?

      • Tim Vernon

        The American Psychiatric Association defined it as one until 1973, when they were bullied into removing it.

    • cken

      Or it could have been they changed their ancient opinion as more scientific information became available. Rather like people were bullied into believing the world is round and that it revolves around the sun. And let’s not forget the people who are bullied into thinking the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

      • Mark

        You confuse hard science with soft science. There is much more subjectivity in soft sciences like psychology than in hard sciences like physics and chemistry. That the world is round is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Research into sexuality is much more subjective.

  • Shane

    What an Anglican conundrum to have, Bart! ;)

    I was reading a chapter of Francis Turretin today, and found him addressing this very point from a different angle. Instead of thinking about religious liberty in Enlightenment terms as you suggest, he points to the use of state power in matters of religion by Romanists and English monarchs as wrong not because it violates some tacit Hobbesian agnosticism, but because religion is fundamentally outside the sphere of government’s sovereignty. He argues that the religion of Christ never advances by means of force, but by “the invincible scepter of the Gospel of Christ,” not by shedding blood, but by suffering bloodshed. Because God values human freedom and demands authenticity in conversion, He detests governments which make proselytes at sword point and embitter closeted pagan hearts toward Christ who otherwise might have been made disciples.

    Puritan Thomas Helwys makes the same point in his famous “A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity,” for which King James had him thrown into prison, where he died:

    “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their [Romans Catholics'] consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes…For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves.”

    Likewise, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:4 that “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”

    Who can declare contrarily that the Church of Christ DOES, in fact, make use of the weapons of this world to advance her cause?

    Every state decree in matters of religion (as not touching acts of violence) from Constantine to Queen Mary to Barack Obama has been detestable not because Christians believe spiritual truths are adiaphora, but because we believe Caesar is neither capable of making real converts, nor has a right to do so. The “convert or die” method of evangelism so scorned outside of the Muslim world is wrong in the same way a traffic cop pulling you over for not personally liking the speed limit would be wrong.

    We make laws against speeding because it protects lives. Whether the would-be speeders like and believe in the law or not is immaterial. If they obey it (or can be compelled to obey), the law’s purpose is fulfilled. Civil laws are inherently incapable and should be uninterested in shaping men’s hearts. The sword of government can pierce only flesh-deep. But the entire purpose of religion is to shape men’s hearts. How foolish would be, then, to bring the sword of government to bear in this task? Not only can it not change men’s hearts. It can create tremendous suffering, injustice and bitterness in the process.

    That is why religious liberty must be restricted only by the boundaries of peace, and not interfered with in any other way. At least that’s how I see the issue. But what do I know? I’m practically a Puritan.

    • Nathaniel Torrey

      Thanks for the comment, but I am not Mr. Gingerich.

    • John

      Let’s put aside the notion that we would compel conformity of conscience. What about banning the physical desecration of crosses? I think it’s permissible as a form of decency law or, in some countries, a law against incitement.

      What about an FCC rule prohibiting the use of the Lord’s name in vain over public airwaves? I think that’s justifiable as well for the same reason though you’d never get it done, which is an important point. Even the justifiable are subject to the normal procedures of just government. You may not be able to justly impose a just law.

      What about private acts of blasphemy? E.g., desecration of a cross at home alone. We may want to protect privacy above crosses. A private act whose effect is limited to the actor is closer to an internal disposition which shouldn’t be touched by the state than it is to a public act which the state does have authority over.

      Finally, what about subsidizing religion? I think that’s permissible as well though we should be weary of the consequences. The public resentment alone might weigh against the subsidy.

  • Shane

    Oops. Wrong author. I thought this was Bart Gingerich’s piece!

    • Nathaniel Torrey

      No worries! I’ll take that as a compliment!

      • Bart Gingerich

        Hi guys.

  • cken

    Perhaps the best way to start would be to examine the premise in your question. “But what if a commitment to objective truth means that we cannot accept religious liberty or liberty of conscience as absolute rights?” Constitutionally we have an absolute right to liberty of conscience. However, that right is assaulted routinely in many ways both in the courts and administratively.
    The more important premise to question would be, is there such a thing as an “objective truth”? From a world view if we as Christians use the Bible to substantiate our objective truth are we in fact being objective. Some have suggested the Bible has become the de facto Christian God and we therefore have a God before Him.

    Just interesting questions I would welcome commentary on.

    • Mark

      Christianity is built on the premise that there IS objective Truth and that there is an unchanging God (the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow–ergo, so-called “process theology” is non-Christian). This is a hard teaching for folks who have been conditioned in a postmodern, subjectified world.

      For devoted Christians the Bible, as the inspired Word, is the most salient and important conveyor of that Truth. Many in today’s culture unfairly characterize those who take Scripture seriously (though not necessarily literally in all cases) as “Bible worshipers.” This is often simply an attempt to marginalize their views.

      However, we are human and can make mistakes in understanding. Paul said we see through a glass dimly. The Bible is pretty clear on many subjects (e.g., divinity of Christ, homosexual behavior, oneness of God, etc.), not so clear on others.

      Understanding of Scripture is commensurate with the effort and time put forth to revere and study it. We should stand firm on its clear teachings (hard to do in the relativistic Western culture of today), and we ought to approach less clear teachings with humility.

      Regardless, we should never mistake the imperfection of humanity with the imperfection of God.

      • cken

        “Regardless, we should never mistake the imperfection of humanity with the imperfection of God.” Isn’t that exactly we shouldn’t assume the Bible is without error?

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  • Elaine

    From Orthowiki – re the idea of “process” in Orthodox Christianity – “Theosis (“deification,” “divinization”) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (“missing the mark”), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection.”

    • Mark

      Don’t know if you were responding to me or not, but “Process Theology” is a totally different concept from Theosis and has to do with the idea that God actually changes.

      • Eric Lytle

        Back in college, the definition of Unitarianism was “believing in one God, at most.” Process theology was defined as “believing in one God, eventually, maybe.”

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Jacques Maritain put the case for religious freedom in t his way, “rational means, that is, through persuasion, not through coercion, that the rational animal is bound by his very nature to try to induce his fellow man to share in what it knows or claims to know as true or just. And the metaphysician, because he trusts human reason; and the believer, because he trusts divine grace, and knows that “a forced faith is a hypocrisy hateful to God and man”, as Cardinal Manning put it, do not use holy war to make their “eternal truth” accessible to other people, they appeal to the inner freedom of other people by offering them either their demonstrations or the testimony of their love. And we do not call upon the people to decide because we are aware of our ignorance of what is the good, but because we know this truth, and this good, that the people have a right to self-government.”

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      I should have said:
      Jacques Maritain put the case for religious freedom in t his way, ““It is impossible more accurately to summarize a set of more barbarous and erroneous assumptions. If it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own, and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence, the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts. In reality it is through rational means, that is, through persuasion, not through coercion, that the rational animal is bound by his very nature to try to induce his fellow man to share in what it knows or claims to know as true or just. And the metaphysician, because he trusts human reason; and the believer, because he trusts divine grace, and knows that “a forced faith is a hypocrisy hateful to God and man”, as Cardinal Manning put it, do not use holy war to make their “eternal truth” accessible to other people, they appeal to the inner freedom of other people by offering them either their demonstrations or the testimony of their love. And we do not call upon the people to decide because we are aware of our ignorance of what is the good, but because we know this truth, and this good, that the people have a right to self-government.”

  • Dan H

    Let’s see if I can connect two seemingly different articles: In yours, I read of Russian Orthodoxy, with its long tradition of being the state church and the one road to God (so they say). In another, I read about Richard Nixon’s connection to the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in Washington, so I go to that church’s website and find this under “What We Believe: Respect for other faiths: We believe God loves all humankind, no matter which religion we belong to, or if we belong to no religion at all. Several interfaith families belong to our congregation. We welcome the richness they bring to our community.”

    So, two extremes: a church that seems to tolerate no rivals, and another church that isn’t sure just what a rival would be. I’m thankful that my evangelical tradition falls somewhere between these two unattractive alternatives. We don’t have the tradition of persecuting “sects,” thankfully, nor do we do as Metropolitan Memorial does, conform so much to the culture that the staff bios refer to the “husband” of one of the male staff members. It’s easy to find faults with one’s own church, but healthy sometimes to look at the alternatives – things could be much worse.