March 4, 2022

Religious Freedom: A Multifaceted Gift to Humanity

Ganoune Diop, Ph.D

There is more to religious freedom than meets the eye.  While belief in religious freedom is as old as religion itself, it has only been in the last 250 years that nation states and the international community have more clearly expressed their commitments to preserving this fundamental human freedom.  “The American experiment,” written into constitutional guarantees in 1789-1791, clearly articulated a key understanding of this freedom by formally separating church and state, and forbidding legislatures to make any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Other constitutions soon reflected similar understandings, but the consensus about religious freedom took longer to develop in the international community.

One catalyzing organization in the development of that international consensus has been the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), which has a fascinating history and story. dating from its charter in 1893. The context that prompted the creation of this religious liberty association was proposed legislation in the United States Senate that would have directly violated the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment. 

In 1888, Adventist leaders opposed two bills introduced in the US senate by Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire. The first bill called for a promotion of Sunday, understood as the Lord’s Day, a day of rest, whose observance the bill was supposed to impose as a national requirement. The second bill proposed a constitutional amendment requiring the nation’s public school to teach the ‘principles of the Christian religion.’

One of the leaders among Seventh-day Adventist pioneers, Alonzo, T, Jones, a future editor of the Adventist Review, even testified to the Congress to stop Sunday law and the proposed provision to make America into a Christian nation. It was, as he clearly described it, a religious liberty issue.

One year later in 1889, Seventh-day Adventists created an association in order to promote religious liberty. It was called “The National Religious Liberty Association.” This movement was amplified in 1893 when the association expanded to become the International Religious Liberty Association.

Engaging political and religious actors at the beginning of Seventh-day Adventist church existence became a deliberate choice. Some would say that doing so was a necessity if the Seventh-day Adventist church was to be credible and relevant in the public space. Promoting religious liberty was meant to benefit all. Seventh-day Adventists understand religious liberty as a universal human right that cannot be restricted to a group at the exclusion of others. 

Today, the discipline of engaging the international community, including both global and national institutions, to promote the foundational and pivotal position of religious freedom is still vital. 

What makes this freedom so compelling?

A Growing International Consensus Because of Tragic Events

Significant global geopolitical events altered the history of our world in significant ways. Two world wars in the 20th century prompted the human family to reassess its moral compass.  The enormous loss of human life challenged the accumulated traditions of centuries: 16 million deaths during WWI, and  60 million deaths during WWII.

Critical questions that could no longer be ignored were squarely in the moral vision of the international community. What is the value of human life? Why so many senseless killings?

What is the measure of human dignity? How could lives be either privileged or abused because of valuing grounded on racial, ethnic, cultural, political, or even religious hierarchical constructs?

Are there principles—moral principles—which can serve as barometer or reference points in human relations, states engagements and international norms?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, was set to play such a role—a guiding compass regarding what really matters when in protecting human life, human rights, and human responsibilities. Key among these rights, one which in fact undergirds all rights, is freedom of religion or belief. Article 18 of the UDHR states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

What follows is an attempt to explore the multifaceted dimensions of freedom of religion or belief, at personal, interpersonal, societal, national, and international levels.  

International Recognition and Formulation of  Religious Freedom.

Freedom of religion or belief is explicitly recognized in international law through the UN Charter; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Helsinki Accords; the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion or Belief; the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; the African Commission on Human, and People's rights; and in many other institutions’ working policies.

The two most famous declarations about religious freedom are found as Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR), and as Article 18 in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The ultimate goal of freedom, religious freedom, and other freedoms as well, is love.

Fundamentally, religious liberty, religious freedom, or freedom of religion or belief, according to the international legal nomenclature, is an indispensable and incontrovertible tool for developing awareness in delineating the parameters of what it means to be human and humane. While considering freedom of religion or belief from legal, political, social, and cultural perspectives, our fundamental non-tradable and nonnegotiable thesis is that religious freedom speaks not only to the humanity of every person but also to the sacredness of human beings. This presupposition is the foundational pillar of religious freedom from a faith-based perspective. That is the spiritual root of religious freedom. 

The feature of human experience that determines the locus of this infinite value of every person is human conscience. Ingrained in our human consciousness and conscience is the need for freedom and self-determination for every human being capable of mature rationality.

Defining Our Terms

Religious Freedom is first a freedom. It is part of a cluster of interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible freedoms. It is also a compound freedom that is inseparable and central to all other fundamental freedoms. 

“The logic is the fact that religious freedom is a compound liberty, that is, there are other liberties bound within it. Allowing the freedom of religion entails allowing the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the liberty of conscience. If a regime accepts religious freedom, a multiplier effect naturally develops and pressure the regime toward further reforms. As such religious liberty limits government (it is a ‘liberty’ after all) by protecting society from the state. Social pluralism can develop because religious minorities are protected” (Hitchen, as quoted by Carter 2017). 

Religious freedom can be defined as the right to profess, practice, and propagate one’s beliefs without coercion, intimidation, or manipulation. Freedom of religion or belief includes the right to wear symbols, and to display them in the public space. It is also the right to possess or to own property devoted to religious or philosophical matters. 

Consequently, freedom of religion or belief is the right to build institutions as expressions of one’s deeply held convictions. Religious liberty includes the right to build sacred spaces designed to promote one’s convictions, worldview, and values. It is also the right to perform rites and rituals to signify one’s beliefs. 

It is also the right to celebrate and/or to set aside sacred times to express exclusive allegiance to God: for example, a day when all is submitted to God’s sovereignty: one’s time, reflections, and activities or rest as in Judaism or in Seventh-day Adventist faith tradition.

This freedom signifies the following realities.

1. A political principle. At a most basic level, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief is a political principle which undergirds other political principles, such as consent of the governed, limited government, rule of law, democracy, and representative government; 

2. A legal provision in international law, enshrined in the UDHR, European Union, African Union agencies, OAS, ASEAN, other international institutions, and national constitutions;

3. A compound freedom. It presupposes freedom of thought, conscience, belief, conviction, expression, assembly, and association.

4. A human right. The right aspects is often emphasized, but there is more.  The human aspect should not be neglected for anthropological, theological, philosophical, and existential reasons.

5. A sign of our humanity, not only because of our rationality but also because of our sense of moral and ethical responsibilities. Moreover, the pivotal position of religious freedom grounded on freedom of conscience allows it to provide a normative basis for what it means to be a human being. It has both individual and corporate dimensions such as peaceful coexistence and cooperation. 

6. A symbol of our interconnectedness, because of what we have in common, not just consciousness but also human conscience. 

7. A seal of sacredness. In monotheistic religions, human beings are sacred, temples of the divine, created in the image of God; or representatives of the divine; or connected to the divine, as stipulated in Asian religions.

8. A call to solidarity, tolerance, and respect, based on the sacredness of every human being.

9. A moral imperative. Freedom of conscience religion or belief is a deterrent against authoritarianism or totalitarianism. It is against the trampling of human dignity, against the reduction of human beings to objects which one can dominate, domesticate or subjugate.

10. An expression of the immeasurable value of every human being. Freedom of religion or belief is a sign signifying the need to protect human beings from being instrumentalized, used, abused, and dehumanized. Human beings have infinite value.

Widening the Scope

Freedom of religion or belief is thus a sign of our humanity, and a symbol of the interconnectedness of the human family. It is intrinsically a call for human solidarity. This freedom, based on the inviolability of human conscience, is also an antidote against the trampling of human dignity and against the abuses of dominance, dominations, and dominions. 

As such, it is purposed to foster tolerance in the dignity of difference without the need of uniformity in belief. Promoting religious freedom is to equip people with the foundation for the respect of every human being. Religious freedom should be fostering responsibility based on the imperative of human solidarity. It positions us to see others from a benevolent disposition, to embrace their infinite mysterious, unquantifiable, and immeasurable value.

What Faith Tells Us

From a faith-based perspective, freedom of religion or belief is primarily understood as a divine attribute. Only a being totally autonomous and dependent on nothing outside of oneself can claim absolute freedom. Nonetheless, the idea of creation in the image of God, reflected in the language of the Book of Genesis, leaves room for reflecting divine communicable attributes such as freedom. 

From faith’s perspective, religious freedom is best understood as part of the image of God. It is deeply connected to the issue of free will. The justification of the importance of free will and freedom of choice is the fact that there can be no genuine covenant without the freedom to choose to enter a relationship. Love cannot be forced. God gives us a choice. We have not been created as robots, programmed machines who will automatically do things expected under certain circumstances. 

Today, in our world, there is a growing awareness of the need for a space where a consensus can reached regarding the importance of all human beings. There is a growing awareness of the preciousness of human life, the mystery of human life, the incontrovertible factoring in of the human dignity of every person. This awareness is—obviously—fiercely contested by supremacist ideologies, but it is still part of the world ethos.

Still, “an urgent need exists for more conceptual clarity concerning freedom of religion or belief, not only in order to defend this right against inimical attacks from outside, but also to strengthen the consensus about the significance of freedom of religion or belief within the human rights community itself.” (Heiner Bielefeldt (2013, 35). 

This need for consensus is obviously true and relevant for the religious communities as well as part of civil society. The unique importance of human conscience, the inner-sacred space which characterizes every human being, binding our very existence and relations with others on ethical and moral principles and values clearly needs greater and more public affirmation. Without such affirmation and protection, people are vulnerable to being instrumentalized and downgraded to objects are used and abused.

Judging, criticizing, putting people into boxes, cataloguing them, and disrespecting the sanctity of their lives is unacceptable abuse.

Freedom of religion or belief functions as a sign and an ever-present reminder of the need to relate to every person with respect and courteous circumspection before the mystery of every person.  That mysterious inner world is rich with beauty and hidden treasures, but also displays traumas and wounds that make life difficult for many. 

Every human story is complex. No one should function as prosecutor, jury, and judge in an extra-legal “courtroom,” distributing sentences against others because they are different, or because they do not fit our system of references and preferences. Acceptance of other people’s right to exist in the dignity of difference requires a pause in each person, a relinquishing of the self-appointed indecency to judge others without knowing their stories.  It requires hearing from them on their own terms.

Religious freedom, when believed and embraced as part of one’s lifestyle, is part of a benevolent disposition toward every person one meets. It becomes an integral part of a lifestyle characterized by a humble attitude before the mystery of the other. Every human being one meets is in a unique mysterious connection with the Creator. This relationship is sacred and intimate. It may be at various stages of realization, but it is nonetheless irreducible to any categorization. It should therefore never be desecrated by disruptive intrusions by anyone. This unique sacred space that conscience is, is irreplaceable and irreproducible. It should not be violated. Judging, criticizing, putting people into boxes, cataloguing them, and disrespecting the sanctity of their lives is unacceptable abuse, whether those acts occur in global, national, community, or personal theaters.  All humans are sacredly endowed: children, youth, adults, elderly people, and members of all races, ethnicities, and faiths. 

What If We Embrace Religious Freedom?

Religious freedom or freedom of religion or belief has been difficult to embrace because of the implications it requires for how we live and relate to others. But if this freedom were embraced, there would be no genocides, no conquest, no subjugation of people, no domination and domestication of other people, no human trafficking, and no slavery, contemporary or ancient. There would be no territorial annexations depriving people groups and individuals of their space of living and resources.

States would not use anti-blasphemy laws and anti-conversions laws to reprimand, repress, persecute, imprison and murder dissenting voices. The dignity of difference would be celebrated if no one is harmed, hurt, humiliated, and ostracized because they believe differently.

if this freedom were embraced, there would be no genocides, no conquest, no subjugation of people, no domination and domestication of other people, no human trafficking, and no slavery.

On the other hand, the right to be different would not be used to force societies to legitimize personal choices not consonant with other people’s beliefs. Freedom of belief should never be used to force a belief on others.

In the religious sphere, world religions would use the power of witness and peaceful persuasion to share their convictions. There would be no coercion, forced conversions or intimidation not to convert. Christians would uplift Christ instead of forced conversions and military dominance to subjugate indigenous populations. Mission, unlike some of its painful history, would only be a commission to witness to the Prince of Peace and His call for reconciliation with God and with one another.

Insight from the Bible

An incontrovertible dimension of religious freedom is revealed in the fifth chapter of book of Galatians. The Apostle Paul argues that the whole Christian faith is predicated upon the idea of freedom. He wrote: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” He repeats this premise in v. 13:

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this context, the Apostle Paul climaxes his argument with a delineation of “the fruit of the Spirit.” The ultimate goal of freedom, religious freedom, and other freedoms as well, is love. More specifically and comprehensively, the goal of freedom is the fruit of the Holy Spirit: 

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

(Galatians 5:22-23).

If these things are believed; if this tree matures; if this fruit appears, we see clearly that we have individual, interpersonal, social, political, economic, and spiritual responsibilities which we must act to fulfill.  Faith requires nothing less of us.

Persons from many and differing faith and philosophical traditions can rally to promote such pivotal and incontrovertible freedom, for peaceful coexistence, for the healing of human relations and for societal health through the dignity of difference.

Ganoune Diop, Ph.D
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