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Rescuing Religious Freedom

Rescuing Religious Freedom

Elizabeth Oldfield discusses the centrality and importance of religious freedom and explains why it needs rescuing to commemorate Religious Freedom Day.

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I believe in the absolute centrality and importance of religious freedom for healthy, diverse societies. And yet, in public debates I find myself more and more uncomfortable defending it. The concept of religious freedom, a powerful force for justice, is becoming tainted by association with forces who are not that interested in justice for all.

We need to rescue it.

This problem has been rumbling in the United States for far longer than it has here. This isn’t surprising in a nation for which religious freedom is close to a sacred value. Founded in large part by pilgrims fleeing religious constraints, after a bloody and fractious beginning in many colonies the First Amendment provided constitutional protection:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

This in part explains the proliferation of American religious freedom organisations working domestically and internationally, and the far greater concern for this right than in most European countries. Multiple Supreme Court cases have been fought to establish the boundaries of this freedom. Many of them have been driven by brilliant organisations and individuals genuinely concerned about protecting this most fundamental right for all.

Sadly, however, this isn’t always the case. Particularly in recent years, some Christian conservatives have grown less sympathetic to religious freedom for non–Christians, especially Muslims. This is happening at the same time their rhetoric on behalf of religious freedom has grown louder. Increasingly, religious freedom is linked explicitly to “Judaeo–Christian values” – not in the sense of  love, mercy, truth, faithfulness, hospitality and hope – but in a more tribal and exclusionary sense.

Those who are committed to religious freedom for all are sometimes attacked for it. Eric Treene, the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is a socially conservative evangelical Christian with a track record which has made some progressives fear he is part of a push towards “Christian nationhood”. However, he is now regularly attacked by Trump supporters (one called him “the errand boy of the Muslim Brotherhood”) for the sin of defending the religious freedom of Muslims to grow beards and build mosques. When Ted Cruz ran in the 2016 presidential election it was on a religious liberty ticket, with him calling the freedom his “life’s passion”. He has also, however, been instrumental in pushing for laws which could restrict the freedoms of Muslims, again particularly to build mosques, and surrounded himself with advisors vocal in their anti–Muslim views.  

In these cases, “religious freedom”, it certainly appears, is less about defending the right of religious people to practice their faith, and more about defending the right of the majority to denigrate and abuse a vulnerable minority.

It is not just religious freedom becoming a cipher for simmering anti–Muslim resentment that is a problem. Closer to home in the UK, the tactics of some religious freedom campaign groups have raised concerns about duplicitous practice and stirring up hatred against public figures and institutions during high profile cases.  We have also seen repeated public clashes between what are seen as “religious rights” and “gay rights”. These are often difficult and important debates about the right to hold and express socially conservative views, and balancing perceived harm with freedom of speech, but these nuances are usually lost in the way they are covered. This means that in the  imagination of some people “religious freedom” is now synonymous with “the right to be horrible about gay people”.

All this means some have argued that we should drop the promotion of religious freedom altogether.

I disagree. Religious freedom is sometimes called the “first freedom” because of its position in the First Amendment, but the phrase has wider resonance. Protecting the right of people to believe and act in ways you disagree with, but which do not harm you, is essential training for citizens in diverse societies. Liberal democracies cannot stand if they become safe and welcoming only for those who hold whatever set of beliefs and practices are currently dominant.

Globally, the sometimes hard–won right of religious organisations to have independence lay the foundations for the right of all people—religious or not—to form and lead civil, social and cultural institutions that flourishing societies depend on.

Many commentators have argued that religious freedom connects to the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, and is often the place these other freedoms are tested. Religious freedom is not more important than the others, but they tend to rise and fall together, as we are seeing worrying portents of in America.

In diverse and pluralising societies there will always be tensions around religious freedom and some of these will, as a last resort, need to be worked out by the courts. But anyone who cares about the freedom of human beings to make their own minds up on existential questions (including to decide against religion), and then to live according to their values, should be in favour of religious freedom.

It needs to be promoted unequivocally as a right for all people, because when it is restricted to one group it does indeed become a force for harm, not good. So let’s rescue it from those who wield the phrase as a tribal weapon of exclusion, defend the freedoms of those with whom we deeply disagree, and wipe the taint from this freedom that is fundamental to us all.

 Image by benjaminec available under a Shutterstock license. 

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 14 January 2019

Freedom of Religion, Future of Religion, Identity politics, Liberty


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