April 17, 2012

Is Religious Freedom No Longer “Cool”?

Religious freedom denied
Religious freedom needs to be restored to its proper role in society. (Photo credit: Blogspot)

Speakers at Regent University’s March 2012 symposium on “Media and The Law: Seeking Justice for the Least of These” worried that domestic and global religious freedom is no longer a major emphasis in American culture.

The March 29-31 Center for Global Justice event featured panels addressing human trafficking, protection of children, and religious freedom. In the wake of recent politicking over the Obamacare contraception/abortifacient mandate, the religious freedom panel was especially relevant. Thomas Messner of the Heritage Foundation and Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign articulated their concerns about the rights of conscience and worship.

According to Messner, increasing ostracism of faith from the public square results from mission creep and complacency. This “drift” occurs because religion is seen as an obstruction to public policy and even portrayed as “second hand smoke.” This dim view of religion portrays it as unhealthy for believers and passively dangerous to society. New York City’s ban preventing churches from renting public schools for worship services is one recent example. The decision was judicially overturned in late February.

When the “second hand smoke” view of religion “gets translated into public policy it becomes pernicious.” Messner warned. Once religion is marginalized as a minor part of one’s identity, it is easier to pressure believers to give “public blessing” to policies violating religious freedom. To Messner’s mind, the contraception/abortifacient mandate hints at future government moves to compel American religious institutions to affirm policies that violate conscience based on their religious teachings.

The debate over religious freedom is shifting from a “cultural war” to a “conscience war,” Messner explained. Christians are increasingly inhibited from attempting to state a case for a society built on commonly shared religious values. In extreme cases religious believers could lose economic opportunities, such as firing Christian doctors for not performing abortions. More benignly, the new coercive framework advocates for reduced moral standards as religion is sidelined.

Legally and socially marginalizing religious expression ultimately “forces everyone to give their blessing,” Messner said. “It’s not a good place to be.”

He also warned that “religious freedom is not as cool of an issue as it used to be.” Believers need to restate the case for religious freedom by affirming that belief in the “transcendental” is reasonable. Otherwise belief is treated as tantamount to mental illness.

“Religious freedom goes hand in hand with freedom in general,” Messner concluded. Its abdication at home and abroad could prove problematic for the least among us.

Cautioning against apocalyptic reactions to the Obamacare mandate, Jubilee Campaign founder Ann Buwalda declared that in America, “We don’t have persecution with a capital P.” The U.S. domestic situation for religious freedom is not as perilous as overseas. She examined international religious freedom trends, especially Islamist inspired blasphemy laws. The United States is “known as a leader” on religious freedom issues, which gives America a bully pulpit to address violations of basic human rights, she said. But the U.S. has squandered this role by not forcefully addressing offending governments, particularly in the Muslim majority nations.

Buwalda warned that in majority Muslim countries, while the legal codes and constitutions may allow for freedom to worship, Islamists in these societies sometimes exercise their own justice. The extralegal killings of Shabaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer in Pakistan show fading respect for rule of law in some areas. Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s parliament, was assassinated in March 2011. Taseer, a moderate Muslim governor of Punjab province, was killed in January 2011. Both critics of radical Islam were targeted for questioning Pakistan’s latest draconian anti-blasphemy codes.

In these situations of extra judicial murders, it is apparent that “they also need a person with a stick” to protect religious minorities, Buwalda said. However solutions are limited. She suggested including indigenous religious minorities in the distribution of international aid following national disasters. Seeing Christians doing good, she hoped, would position them as change agents and not perceived pests.

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