Religious Liberty in an Age of Toleration

on September 8, 2009

Jim Tonkowich
September 8, 2009


The following article originally appeared on the Crosswalk website, and is reproduced with permission.

After being assaulted by a family member, the sixteen-year-old British girl was placed in a foster home. Her foster mother had years of experience, a good reputation, and was fully licensed by the state. She was also a practicing Christian.

While in foster care, the young girl on her own became interested in the Christian faith and began attending church. Her foster mother neither encouraged nor discouraged her interest. After a while, the young girl professed faith in Christ and was baptized. And that’s when the trouble began.

The girl had been born into a Muslim family. Baptism into the Christian faith is apostasy for Muslims, punishable by death. The strange thing, however, is that the trouble didn’t come from her family or the Muslim. It came from the British government.

In what amounts to a frontal assault on religious liberty, officials immediately closed the foster home and moved the girl, ordering her to stay away from church for at least six months in order to reconsider her decision.

In a country where the soil is soaked with the blood of those who died fighting for religious liberty—the religious liberty that we also enjoy here in what was an English colony—something has gone terribly wrong.

That something is the seemingly insignificant shift from a belief in religious liberty to a belief in religious toleration.

In a world that has toleration as its highest virtue, religious toleration sounds like a good idea. Most people would agree that the world would be a better place if every nation practiced religious toleration.

But does this assumption have any validity? In the April 2008 issue of Touchstone magazine, human rights scholar William Saunders made the surprising argument that religious toleration rather than being a virtue is a source of religious coercion, persecution, and martyrdom.

This is because religious toleration is based on the belief that while religion may be an unavoidable part of human life, it is, nonetheless, dangerous and needs to be managed and controlled.

Saunders quotes John Shattuck who served as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Clinton administration. In a 2002 speech Shattuck said:

Freedom of religion is predicated upon the existence of more than one religion. But a multiplicity of religions has always meant conflict, and religious conflict often led to war and human devastation. This was the state of reality for centuries and millennia, and it is hardly a ringing endorsement of religious freedom.

Shattuck is not in favor of religious liberty. Instead Shattuck believes that religious toleration is a “strategic necessity” and is “necessary for the internal protection of religion itself.” That is, religion is a danger that must be kept on a leash.

Saunders comments:

[Shattuck], and the philosophical liberalism he represents, sees religion, unlike other human rights, as a problem, as a source of conflict, as something to be managed.

Religion is managed by jettisoning religious liberty and substituting religious toleration. Thus the Chinese register, approve, and tolerate churches and religious groups deemed safe in light of the state’s interests. Unapproved churches or religions—house churches, falun gong, Tibetan Buddhism—are seen as dangerous and subject to persecution.

Religious toleration is at the heart of the Muslim notion of dhimmitude. A dhimmi in Islamic law is a non-Muslim “person of the book”, that is, a Jew or a Christian, living in a Muslim country. Dhimmis may practice their religion, but with significant restrictions—especially the restriction on evangelism. They are taxed at a higher rate, have fewer civil liberties, are treated with contempt, and are in every way second-class citizens. The Coptic Christians in Egypt are dhimmis who for generations have been the designated garbage collectors with no option for any other life apart from conversion to Islam.

Similarly, Turkey tolerates the Eastern Orthodox Church. But the Church can’t construct new buildings or repair old ones. When the government expropriates properties, they have no recourse. The Church has few new priests since the state closed their seminary, does not permit candidates to go elsewhere for training, and forbids non-Turks from ministering. The predictable result is that the Orthodox Church in Turkey, while tolerated, is dying out.

Though Dhiminitude is an Islamic concept, the idea is not limited to Islamic states. Communist regimes gave second-class status to religious believers, French secularism has not been kind to the religious, and sadly there are signs of religious liberty eroding in our country.

Hate crimes legislation, certain healthcare reform provisions, attempts to revive the Fairness Doctrine, new rules at the Faith-Based Office, the ongoing push for same-sex “marriage,” the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and the rescission of conscience protection for healthcare workers—these tolerate only certain state approved religious positions and thus undermine religious liberty for everyone.

As Judge Robert Bork has said:

You are going to get Catholic hospitals that are going to be required as a matter of law to perform abortions. …We are going to see in the near future a terrible conflict between claimed rights of homosexuals and religious freedom… You are going to get Catholic or other groups’ relief services that are going to be required to allow adoption of a child by homosexual couples. We are going to have a real conflict that goes right to the heart of the society.

And make no mistake: religious liberty is at the heart of a free society. What can be the meaning or value of economic freedom or freedom of assembly or freedom of speech or freedom of the press if our consciences are not free to believe or disbelieve, to worship or mock, to convert to or from one belief system to another, to change our minds? All human freedoms are important, but religious liberty is the foundation for all the rest. It is the freedom to think for yourself. This makes religious liberty our first freedom in importance and in order.

While religious toleration is a creation of the state, religious liberty is an unalienable right rooted in our nature as humans. It is the freedom to choose, practice, share, and live in private – and in public – the faith each of us believes. Religious liberty sees religion as a positive human good that is healthiest and of greatest benefit when it is most free, not something that is dangerous and in need of management.

From a Christian point of view, religious liberty is founded on the conviction that just as God does not coerce belief, we have no right to coerce belief from one another. Every human has a duty to acknowledge God who is Creator and Judge. Because this is duty, there must be a corresponding freedom to choose or reject that duty. Religious belief may only be proposed to our neighbors’ mind and heart, never forcefully imposed against their wills.

From a more secular point of view, religious liberty comes from a conviction that the individual and the core if his or her being, the conscience, ought not to be violated. Humans must be free to believe what they believe or they are not free at all.

Are there limits to religious freedom? Certainly. Human sacrifice, child abuse, and violence are illegitimate religious expressions and are appropriately outlawed. But rather than begin with what is rightly prohibited, we need to begin with the simple fact that religious liberty is a law written into God’s relationship with humans and into the nature of human dignity. That is why it must be the law of every land.

Liberty has always been a fragile proposition. History shows that it takes years to grow, but only a generation of neglect to destroy. The religious freedom we enjoy—whether we are people of faith or not—is something for which we should give thanks every day, defend with all that is in us, and work to spread throughout the world.

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