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Religious Freedom I

Thomas Kadmon, ICR,

30 September, 2022

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Recently, I gave a speech in Martin Place, Sydney, on religious freedom. I want to use the main points of the speech as a basis for a fuller reflection on the subject.

Religious Freedom - simple in theory, complicated in practice.

We all have the right to seek the Truth - that's simple. When we believe we've found it, we want to live by it. But asserting the truth in the public square - practising our religion or beliefs - can be complicated because it impacts others in myriad ways and raises issues of justice. Is it fair, for example, for religious schools to deny employment to homosexuals because they contradict the school's view of normal sexual relations or marriage?

We abhor religious persecution. In the name of stamping out superstition, atheistic states have denied religious people civil liberties, destroyed their places of worship, inflicted forced brainwashing and sterilisation, torture and murder.

But it's not a simple pattern, such as if we could say, 'religious people good, godless people bad'; or 'this bunch of humans good and that bunch bad'. I agree with Solzhenitsyn who said the dividing line between good and evil runs through the middle of each individual's heart. Sometimes ostensibly religious people are the victims; sometimes the perpetrators of persecution. The Chinese Communist Party may persecute Uyghur Muslims, Christians and Falun Gong. To put this merely down to atheism is a mistake. Why have Rohingya Muslims been persecuted by Burmese Buddhists, while other members of the Islamic faith kill rival sects in the Middle East or black Christians in Africa? Obviously elements of hateful ideology can infiltrate any religion, turning it from an instrument of peace to one of violence. A key motivator for founding ICR was to promote understanding and mitigation of interreligious and church-state conflicts.

3 Basic Points about Religious Freedom

1. It is foundational, and the source of the other freedoms;

Religious freedom is the most fundamental freedom of all because it involves not only the recognition that I have free will, but the accompanying awareness that it is given by and links me to the Creator, which is of the essence of religion.

('Re-ligare' is to link back - to the source). From this fundamental freedom flow the other freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly etc. - all of which imply spontaneous acts of the will, that is, free will.

If we merely snatch at derivative freedoms - freedom to travel, freedom to work, to socialise etc. - without caring about their source, then we are liable to fall into error as to that source. We can then be persuaded that freedom is a permission granted by government or the power elite. Remember the dark days of the pandemic: if you behave and get the jab, you may be given some of your freedoms back!

Freedom is not a permission granted by the powerful. It is not something given or returned to you when you placate authorities. It is an inalienable right. In an up-side down world where freedom is supposedly granted by the powerful, you have to be savvy to their expectations and agenda. Otherwise how could you fulfil your obligations and deserve your freedom? In the right side-up world, where freedom is recognised as issuing from the Creator, you still have to know the expectations and agenda of the source of freedom. To know how to fulfil your obligations so that your freedom is not forfeit; so that it remains liberty and not licence - like the so-called freedom to abort one's fetus or change one’s gender. Freedom, properly understood, is always ordered towards the true, the good and the beautiful. This brings us to the second point.

2. Freedom has two vectors: 'freedom from' and 'freedom to'

'Freedom from’ means freedom from coercion. 'Freedom to' means freedom to follow the moral law. These have been decoupled on a global scale by false ideology: the idolatry of worshipping false gods. Not only does this lead to public nuisance and chaos, it gives a pretext to tyrants to move in and impose their own form of order, which is not order at all, but brutality and barbaric suppression. A civilised society upholds that every right entails a duty. For example, the right of free speech entails the duty not to bear false witness and slander your fellow human beings. The right to freely assemble entails the duty to respect persons and property. And the right to practice anything and everything that calls itself religion - from satanism to the cult of the great spaghetti monster to New Age spiritual movements to any of the world’s traditional great faiths - must observe due limits of public order. This brings us to the third point about religious freedom.

3. Excesses of religious expression can only be curbed by a government that observes the moral law.

It’s the government’s role to maintain that public order. Does this mean that state and church are completely separate? No. Because there is no such thing as a neutral state uninformed by ideology and values. These ideologies and values either derive from or contradict religious worldviews and values. The state’s officials are informed by their own religious/ ideological values that they inevitably bring into the public square; if not directly then indirectly. So the judgment on public order and where prejudicial, bigoted or abusive religious expression needs to be curtailed is itself informed by religion. For the moral law always exists within a religious/ideological framework or worldview.

Now logic dictates that you can only attempt to correct excesses and abuses of false religious expression by true, good religion. What this means is highly significant. Freedom of religious expression implies that public order must be underwritten by the civil power’s acceptance of true religious principles. Because it can’t correct religious error with religious error. That would be the blind leading the blind. And so we are led to a paradox. The civil government that upholds religious freedom is actually under an obligation to seek the establishment of true religion. Historically we’ve seen this operate in confessional states which have had an official religion deemed true by a preponderance of the people. But it applies equally in ethnically diverse multicultural societies like Australia and the United States.


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