Christians can respond in a principled way, speaking and acting from Christian truth, to address the crises of the post-Christian West. These crises involve both the loss of their own religious freedom to a humanistic understanding of civil rights, and the negative consequences to the wider society of state policy and social practice keyed to personal gratification rather than personal responsibility. This clear message was conveyed at a presentation on “Do Religious Freedom and Human Rights Clash in Today’s Democracies,” sponsored by the Acton Institute and the Transatlantic Christian Council, a newly formed alliance to promote Christian and conservative values in the West, at the Library Congress on September 11.
Henk Jan van Schothorst, Executive Director of the Transatlantic Christian Council, Europe Office, opened the presentation by noting the “growing clash between classical freedom and the equality principle.” The Christian faith is now facing considerable hostility in Europe. “Christians must reclaim a place for themselves … in the interest of safeguarding fundamental freedoms” he said. If classical freedoms prosper, “public goods will be dispersed worldwide.”
The first of two presenters was Rocco Buttiglione, a former member of the European Parliament whose nomination as European Commissioner for Italy failed after the publication of his personal views on the sinfulness of homosexuality. In answer to the question of whether religious freedom and human rights are in conflict, Buttiglione said that “in principle, the answer is a simple ‘no’.” “Religious freedom is not just the right to pray to God in the way one thinks fit,” he said. It has to do with “the way in which one understands one’s self.” It therefore has a primary place, really by its very nature (which relates to ultimate things) in the public world. The secular understanding of human nature, which is threatening religious freedom at the present time, was well expressed by Sigmund Freud, who held that man “is a bundle of desires.” This is the basis of the 1960s “if it feels good, do it” philosophy. In contrast to this, Buttiglione pointed to Abraham’s response to God, which stands at the outset of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Man in this tradition must “keep promises.” What directs this man’s life is not what he immediately feels. It involves feeling an obligation of “being one.” If we feel the obligation of being one, “we can have a society.”
Although the self-denying obligation of “being one” is essential for society, it is most secure if it is rooted in a transcendent reality, and if so rooted, best if the religion holding society together is monotheistic. It is religion which binds together men and women and “creates human community.” Religion is not just a matter of “going to mass or to a [worship] service” one day a week. It is “God’s spirit in us.” In contrast, the “old religion of the Greeks was a religion of schizophrenic man,” Buttiglione said. It is really not true religion, since “religion has to do with the unity of the human being.” One God makes possible a clear voice of conscience to direct life. “Conscience is the place in which the voice of God resounds in [the] mind.” Buttiglione noted the nineteenth century Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, who, while hostile to the Catholic Church, noted that freedom is “the right to do one’s conscience” but not the “right to do whatever I wish.” Because it has to do with the unity of the individual and society, in the order of freedom, “freedom of religion stands at the beginning.” Freedom therefore should not be, (as secularists now regard it) the “freedom to follow disordered passions,” and the “liberation of the right to pleasure” (which is no right). The obligation of “being one,” on which society depends, also gives a basis for freedom of thought and speech, since if we recognize this obligation, we will respect the search for truth, and also assert our right to criticize. Community is “held together by a dialogue on truth.”
What happens if we do not listen to conscience? Atheism, whether self-conscious or merely practical, follows, and it is boring. What follows atheism? It is a “world without unity.” Buttiglione said that in such a world, there is no free market, because there is no common conscience focusing on unity. There will also be no children “who will take care of parents.” He claimed that evidence shows that children “want to grow with one father and one mother.” Children want a father who loves their mother, and for the father and mother to love each other.
The free societies the West has known depend on this moral vision, Buttiglione maintained. No truth means no criticism. The loving act is to criticize the wrong. The old western freedoms assume human nature. When human nature is denied, as it is by the contemporary western left, strength replaces human nature as the source of human rights. The current denial of human nature means that strong minorities prevail against weak majorities. Buttiglione noted that some say that in this situation, evolution, in the sense of progress, will occur. Something new and better will replace the old. But evolution in the biological sense is supposed to involve many blind alleys. A blind alley is more likely to be the result of the current cultural conflict. Christians should demonstrate love and be faithful to our identity as western Christians for the preservation of the great good that exists in Western civilization, Buttiglione said.
Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia then noted the “obligation of the church in the West to advocate” for our non-western brothers. But in America “vices are elevated, virtues are mocked … faith is excluded from the public square.” Rather than posing a radical alternative to culture, Christians are offering “culture lite.” With friendships, family relations, and social status at risk, Wolf said, we are tempted to be “cafeteria Christians.” True Christians speak out on what is “right and just,” and should be prepared to pay the “cost of discipleship,” since we may be forced to choose between “conscience and the law.” In this regard, he referred to Martin Luther King’s sermon from the Birmingham jail. King pointed out that Hitler’s actions were legal, while the actions of the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956 were illegal. An analogy used in the letter referred to the church as a thermostat (correcting society), rather than a thermometer (simply reflecting it). The church will “lose authenticity” if it no longer holds to a distinctively Christian message. And if the cost of “following Jesus becomes greater in post-Christian America,” others may be drawn to Christ.
The task of supporting the non-Western suffering church is enormous; it “constitutes nearly one third of the total Christian population.” The Middle East, except for Israel, is being virtually emptied of Christians. Once 1.3 million persons in Iraq, Christians today account for 2 to 3 hundred thousand. “If the Middle East is effectively emptied of the Christian faith, it will have a great geopolitical impact, and I would argue, spiritual consequences,” Wolf said. To the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, there is the “virtual silence on the part of the West.” Vulnerable faith communities were part of the reason for America. The West’s silence today “is a downstream effect” of the attenuation of Christianity in the West. Wolf also held that in advocating for religious freedom, we must also advocate freedom for everyone (Buddhists in Tibet, Ahmadiyya Muslims, etc.).
Several questions were fielded from the audience. Rein Willems, former President of Shell Netherlands and a Dutch senator, moderated the session, and himself asked what the origin of the problem of secularization and diversity in Europe was. He said that the Dutch state has taken over much of the church’s social services function, although this is in some measure being returned as the state can no longer carry the burden. Wolf said in response that Thomas Jefferson was concerned that there be no state church, but supported religious activities in state forums. Historically, the church has provided social services. Buttiglione said in Europe the state attempts to “substitute for the church.” An idea put forward in support of this is that the “state can produce values.” There is a “temptation of creating a state that incorporates in itself the functions of the church.” Also, in Europe, people “take great offense at the free market economy.” The state attempts to take in hand “the task of giving security to all.” So the struggle for religious and economic freedom are linked, he claimed.
Another question concerned hate speech laws. It was observed that these show how ingrained anti-Christian and anti-freedom agendas are, and the Christian Democrats did little to stop these. What has to change? Buttiglione said that the Christian community must have the strength to confess the faith and be fighting Christians. Against this, churches in Germany and Italy would like to live in peace. But we “must take risks of confrontation.” There must be both freedom for criticism and prohibition of incitement. People should push the politicians. Without pressure and without an encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ, nothing will change.
It was then observed that theological education does not instill courage in future pastors, no drive to go against the flow, and there is no understanding of political and social developments. In response, Wolf said that revival is needed, but may need to be led by laymen. Buttiglione asked “where is God acting, what is God doing?” Leaders should have the courage to fight for truth and faith. The church is born again through the renewal of prophets, not ecclesiastical action. Should pastors then encourage members to participate in politics? Wolf said we become missionaries wherever we are. Politics is becoming discredited. Real America will come from the faith community, not from the government. For his part, Buttiglione responded that we should tell politicians when they do well.
Three questions concluded the presentation. One question asked how can strong Christians form a trans-Atlantic coalition. Another asked how we can break the indifference of the public to religious freedom. Another asked how we deal with the danger to religious freedom and the sanctity of life posed by physicalism (the doctrine that sees human beings as merely material beings).
Buttiglione said to the last question, don’t worry about naturalism. It is contrary to the needs of the human being and the needs of the survival of society. In response to the second question, we must “conceive of ourselves as social beings.” If we take responsibility, we become the center of movement. In response to the first, Wolf said we must stand before God someday; this is our greatest inspiration. There is the “power of prayer.” The Soviet Union fell because many people prayed for the collapse of communism.
Todd Huizinga, Director of International Outreach of the Acton Institute, and Executive Director of the Transatlantic Christian Council, United States Office, then introduced the closing remarks by saying that we need to stand up to the “tyranny of relativism.” “What better thing to stand up for than the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord,” he said.
The closing remarks were given by Congressman Chris Smith. He noted that the famous advocate of the persecuted church, Richard Wurmbrand, had said that the West should “speak out” against persecution. Freedom of religion is more likely to be the norm if Christians occupy positions of power. It often happens in the contemporary world that “people leave moral convictions outside the door.” Yet contemporary conflict “pits aggressive secularists against faith based individuals.” There is much to be concerned about in the public square from a religious and moral standpoint. There is an “evolving” definition of human rights. U.N. monitoring committees which monitor binding U.N. treaties are filled with abortion and homosexual rights advocates who misconstrue international treaties to require acceptance by signatory states of abortion and homosexuality. All humanitarian aid will be predicated on acceptance of the sexual revolution, and these aspects in particular. The secularists’ idea is to push faith based organizations out of the public square. The prime example of this is the HHS mandate, which penalizes Christian organizations unless they violate their convictions to drive them out of the public square. Little Sisters of the Poor will be fined $35,000 per year per employee (under a case still pending in the courts) if they don’t fund contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs. Those who see the church’s goals as antithetical to their own will be indifferent to persecution, as the Obama Administration actually is. But political effort by Christians can be effective. Smith noted that a Swedish delegation tried to get the Yogyakarta Principles (which essentially make opposition to homosexuality illegal) formally incorporated into international human rights standards by the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE). This resulted in a “huge fight.” But “in very liberal Europe, we prevailed.”