What Does Religious Freedom Mean to You?
Although freedom of religion is considered a basic right in the United States, a wave of mob violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses swept through the country in the 1940’s
MILLIONS have fought for it. Some have even died for it. It is truly one of mankind’s most precious possessions. What is it? Freedom! The World Book Encyclopedia defines freedom as “the ability to make choices and to carry them out.” It continues: “From a legal point of view, people are free if society imposes no unjust, unnecessary, or unreasonable limits on them. Society must also protect their rights—that is, their basic liberties, powers, and privileges.”
The concept sounds simple. In practice, however, it seems to be virtually impossible for people to agree on just where the boundaries of freedom should be set. For example, some believe that a government should enact laws to protect the freedom of its citizens. But others will argue that these laws are the very shackles from which citizens need to be set free! Clearly, freedom means different things to different people.
What About Religious Freedom?
Perhaps the freedom that is most hotly disputed is freedom of religion, which has been defined as “the right to believe in and to practice the faith of one’s choice.” According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This includes a person’s right “to change his religion or belief,” along with the freedom “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”—Article 18.
Surely, we would expect any nation that genuinely cares for its subjects to grant such freedom. Sadly, this does not always happen. “Religion touches the deepest feelings of many people,” notes The World Book Encyclopedia. “Some governments have close ties to one religion and consider people of other faiths to be a threat to political authority. A government also may regard religion as politically dangerous because religions may place allegiance to God above obedience to the state.”
For these reasons some governments place restrictions on the exercise of religion. A few discourage the practice of any faith at all. Others, though claiming to advocate freedom of worship, keep a tight rein on all religious activities.
Consider, for example, the situation that prevailed for many years in Mexico. Although the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom, it stipulated: “Churches used for public worship are the property of the Nation, represented by the Federal Government, who shall determine which ones can continue to be used as such.” In 1991 the Constitution was amended to end this restriction. Nevertheless, this example illustrates that religious freedom may be interpreted differently in various lands.
Another Kind of Religious Freedom
Does religious freedom exist in the land in which you live? If so, how is it defined? Can you worship God in the manner you choose, or are you compelled to become a member of the State religion? Are you permitted to read and disseminate religious literature, or is such printed material proscribed by the government? Can you talk to others about your faith, or is this considered to be an infringement on their religious rights?
The answers to these questions depend upon where you live. Interestingly, however, there is a kind of religious freedom that does not depend at all upon locale. While in Jerusalem in the year 32 C.E., Jesus said to his followers: “If you remain in my word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”—John 8:31, 32.
What did Jesus mean by this statement? His Jewish listeners longed for liberation from Roman rule. But Jesus was not discussing freedom from political oppression. Rather, he was promising his disciples something far better, as we will see in the following article.