Religious Freedom—Blessing or Curse?
The birth of the notion of religious freedom was accompanied by great labor pains in Christendom. It was a struggle against dogmatism, prejudice, and intolerance. It cost countless thousands of lives in bloody religious conflicts. What does this painful history teach us?
“PERSECUTION has been an enduring fact of Christian history,” writes Robin Lane Fox in the book Pagans and Christians. Early Christians were called a sect and were accused of threatening public order. (Acts 16:20, 21; 24:5, 14; 28:22) As a result, some endured torture and were killed by wild beasts in Roman arenas. In the face of such bitter persecution, some, such as the theologian Tertullian (see picture on page 8), pleaded for religious freedom. In 212 C.E., he wrote: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.”
In 313 C.E., persecution of Christians by the Roman world came to an end under Constantine, with the Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion to Christians and pagans alike. The legalization of “Christianity” in the Roman Empire turned the tide. However, about 340 C.E., a professed Christian writer called for the persecution of pagans. Finally, in 392 C.E., by means of the Edict of Constantinople, Emperor Theodosius I banned paganism within the empire, and religious freedom died a premature death. With Roman “Christianity” as the State religion, Church and State embarked on a campaign of persecution that lasted for centuries, reaching its zenith in the bloody Crusades of the 11th to the 13th centuries and in the cruelty of the Inquisitions, which began in the 12th century. Those daring to question the established orthodoxy, the monopoly of dogma, were branded as heretics and tracked down in the witch-hunt climate of the time. What was behind such moves?
Religious intolerance was excused on the grounds that religious unity formed the most solid foundation for the State and that religious differences threatened public order. In England, in 1602, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ministers argued: “The State is never safe when it tolerates two religions.” In reality, it was much easier to ban religious dissidents than to find out whether they really posed a threat to the State or to the established religion. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “Neither the secular nor the ecclesiastical authorities drew the slightest distinction between dangerous and harmless heretics.” However, change was soon to come.
The Painful Birth of Tolerance
The catalyst for change in Europe was the upheaval caused by Protestantism, a sectarian movement that refused to go away. With astonishing rapidity, the Protestant Reformation split Europe along religious lines, bringing to the fore the idea of freedom of conscience. The famous Reformer Martin Luther, for example, justified his opinions in 1521, saying: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Division also ignited the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), a series of cruel religious wars that ravaged Europe.
In the midst of war, though, many came to realize that conflict was not the way forward. Thus, a series of edicts, such as the Edict of Nantes in France (1598), sought unsuccessfully to establish peace in war-torn Europe. It was out of these edicts that the modern-day notion of tolerance gradually evolved. At first, “tolerance” had negative connotations. “If under certain circumstances we were to tolerate the sects . . . , it would, without doubt, be an evil—indeed, a serious evil—but not as bad as war,” wrote the famous humanist Erasmus in 1530. Because of this negative sense, some, like Frenchman Paul de Foix in 1561, preferred to talk about “religious freedom” rather than “tolerance.”
With time, though, tolerance came to be seen, not as the lesser of two evils, but as the protector of liberties. It was no longer viewed as a concession to weakness but as a guarantee. When plurality of belief and the right to think differently began to be cherished as the basis of modern society, fanaticism was forced to retreat.
At the end of the 18th century, tolerance became linked with freedom and equality. This was expressed in the form of laws and declarations, such as the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), in France, or the Bill of Rights (1791), in the United States. As these documents came to influence liberal thinking from the 19th century onward, tolerance and hence freedom were viewed no longer as a curse but as a blessing.
Precious as it is, freedom is only relative. In the name of greater freedom for all, the State passes laws that limit some individual liberties. The following are some of the issues related to freedom that are currently being debated in many European countries: To what extent should governmental legislation operate in private life? How effective is it? How does it affect freedom?
The debate over public and private liberties has been thrust to the fore by the media. Allegations of brainwashing, financial extortion, child abuse, and a host of other serious crimes have been directed against some religious groups, often without any substantial proof. News stories involving minority religious groups have received widespread coverage by the press. Disparaging labels such as “cult” or “sect” have now become a part of everyday usage. Under pressure from public opinion, governments have even produced lists of so-called dangerous cults.
France is a country proud of its tradition of tolerance and separation of religion and the State. It proudly proclaims itself the land of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Yet, according to the book Freedom of Religion and Belief—A World Report, “an education campaign in schools to foster rejection of new religious movements” has been recommended in that country. Many people think, however, that this type of action poses a threat to religious freedom. How so?
Threats to Religious Freedom
True religious freedom exists only when all religious groups that respect and obey the law are given equal treatment by the State. This ceases to be the case when the State arbitrarily decides which among the religious groups is not a religion, thus denying it the advantages that the State grants to religions. “The sacred idea of religious freedom rings hollow when the state arrogates unto itself the right to certify religions the way it hands out licenses to drivers,” noted Time magazine in 1997. One French appeal court recently declared that doing so “leads, consciously or not, to totalitarianism.”
Basic freedoms are also threatened when one group has a monopoly on the media. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the case in many countries. For example, in an attempt to define what is religiously correct, anticult organizations have set themselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury and have then tried to impose their biased view on the public through the media. However, as the French newspaper Le Monde said, in so doing, these organizations sometimes show “the same sectarianism that they are supposedly fighting and risk creating a ‘witch-hunt’ climate.” The newspaper asked: “Does not the social stigmatization of minority religious groups . . . threaten essential freedoms?” Martin Kriele, quoted in Zeitschrift für Religionspsychologie (Magazine for Psychology of Religion), stated: “The witch-hunt for sects gives more cause for concern than the vast majority of the ‘so-called sects and psychogroups.’ Simply put: Citizens who do not overstep the law should be left in peace. Religion and ideology should be free and remain free, also in Germany.” Let us consider one example.
“Model Citizens”—Branded as Dangerous
Which religious group was said to be “the most dangerous of all sects” in the opinion of Catholic authorities quoted in Spain’s popular ABC newspaper? You may be surprised to learn that ABC was talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do the accusations made against them have an impartial, objective basis? Note the following declarations from other sources:
“The Witnesses teach people to pay their taxes honestly, not to participate in wars or preparations for war, not to steal and, in general, to follow a life-style that if it were adopted by others would lead to an improvement in the standards of civil cohabitation.”—Sergio Albesano, Talento, November-December 1996.
“Contrary to the insinuations circulated on certain occasions, [Jehovah’s Witnesses] do not appear to me to represent the slightest danger to the State’s institutions. They are citizens who are peace-loving, conscientious, and respectful toward the authorities.”—A Belgian parliamentary deputy.
“The Jehovah’s Witnesses are recognizably the most honest people in the Federal Republic.”—German newspaper Sindelfinger Zeitung.
“You might regard [Jehovah’s Witnesses] as model citizens. They pay taxes diligently, tend the sick, battle illiteracy.”—U.S. newspaper San Francisco Examiner.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses experience greater success than members of other denominations in maintaining stable marital unions.”—American Ethnologist.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most upright and diligent of the citizenry of African countries.”—Dr. Bryan Wilson, Oxford University.
“Members of that faith have contributed greatly through the decades toward expanding liberty of conscience.”—Nat Hentoff, Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee.
“They have . . . made a definite contribution to the preservation of some of the most precious things in our democracy.”—Professor C. S. Braden, These Also Believe.
As the above quotations indicate, Jehovah’s Witnesses are recognized throughout the world as exemplary citizens. In addition, they are known for their free Bible education work and for the promotion of family values. Their literacy classes have helped hundreds of thousands, while their humanitarian works over the decades have helped thousands, especially in Africa.
The Importance of Objectivity
Society is rife with unscrupulous people preying on innocent victims. Consequently, there is a definite need to be vigilant when it comes to claims about religion. But just how objective and how conducive to religious freedom is it when some journalists, instead of consulting objective experts, rely on information from churches who see their numbers dwindling or from antisect organizations whose objectivity is open to serious question? The newspaper that called Jehovah’s Witnesses “the most dangerous of all sects” admitted, for instance, that its definitions came from “the experts of the [Catholic] Church.” In addition, one French magazine noted that the majority of articles dealing with supposed sects originated with antisect organizations. Does this sound to you like the most impartial way of getting objective information?
International courts and organizations concerned with basic human rights, such as the UN, say that “the distinction between a religion and a sect is too contrived to be acceptable.” Then why do some persist in the use of the pejorative word “sect”? It is further evidence that religious freedom is threatened. How, then, can this essential freedom be protected?
[Box/Pictures on page 8]
Defenders of Religious Freedom
Eloquent cries for religious freedom arose from the bloodbath of religious conflict in Europe in the 16th century. These appeals are still relevant to the discussion of religious freedom.
Sébastien Chateillon (1515-63): “What is a heretic? I do not find anything else except that we consider heretics all those that do not agree with our opinion. . . . If in this city or region you are considered a true believer, in the next you will be considered a heretic.” Famous French Bible translator and energetic defender of tolerance, Chateillon touched on one of the key elements in the debate on religious freedom: Who defines who is a heretic?
Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-90): “We read that in the past . . . even Christ himself in Jerusalem and then many martyrs in Europe . . . disturbed [society] with their words of truth. . . . The meaning of the word ‘disturbed’ needs to be defined accurately and clearly.” Coornhert argued that religious difference should not be equated with disturbing public order. He asked: Are those who scrupulously obey and respect the law really a threat to public order?
Pierre de Belloy (1540-1611): It is “ignorant to believe that diversity of religion brings about and nurtures tumult in the State.” Belloy, a French lawyer writing at the time of the Wars of Religion (1562-98), argued that the harmony of the State is not based upon religious uniformity unless, of course, the government is subservient to religious pressures.
Thomas Helwys (c. 1550–c. 1616): “If his [the king’s] people are obedient and faithful subjects to all human laws, he has nothing more to ask from them.” Helwys, one of the founders of the English Baptists, wrote in favor of the separation of Church and State, urging the king to grant religious freedom to all churches and sects and to be content with civil power over people and possessions. His writings underlined a current question: How far should the State control the spiritual?
Anonymous writer (1564): “In order to introduce freedom of conscience, it is not sufficient to allow an individual to abstain from practicing a religion of which he disapproves if, by the same token, the free practice of the one he approves is not allowed.”
All photos: © Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris