Defending religious freedom

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Somebody told me during the weekend that a chapel in MalacaƱan Palace was recently padlocked. Consequently, the employees in the offices there are forced to hurry off to farther churches to hear Mass. Now I don’t know if the story is true (and, if so, what the reasons were for shutting the chapel down) but it did make me think on the issue of religious freedom. Of how believers all over the world, whatever their religion, are beginning to assert their rights in relation to their faith.

It’s fair to say that religious freedom is presently under sustained attack. The assaults range from the subtle (as can be seen perhaps in popular sitcoms) to the not so subtle (US President Obama’s HHS Mandate, as well as the Hosanna Tabor case, come to mind). Indeed, hostility towards religion is the one remaining act of discrimination allowed in popular society. It is simply impermissible to question minorities’ demands, terrorists’ entitlement to human rights, and criminals’ need for better treatment. However, to insult, degrade, or otherwise denigrate religious people is completely acceptable. US radio host Rush Limbaugh is now in trouble for calling a woman a "slut" after she publicly admitted to promiscuity and testified in Congress that the government (or employers or her school) should subsidize her sexual activities. Definitely, Limbaugh’s acts are to be condemned but what does this say of a society that prefers to look the other way when it comes to Bill Maher grossly insulting people simply because of their religious beliefs?

The problem has reached such levels that a group of influential religious leaders and academics decided to come out recently with a statement ("In Defense Of Religious Freedom," published in First Things) decrying the fact that "religious freedom is under renewed assault around the world. While the threats to freedom of faith, religious practice, and religious participation in public affairs in Islamist and communist states are widely recognized, grave threats to religious freedom have also emerged in the developed democracies. In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the ‘dictatorship of relativism.’"

However, to violate people’s right to religion is a mistake. As pointed out by Princeton’s Robert George: "Rights are not abstractions. They protect human goods… [and] religion is another irreducible element of the basic human good. Religion is also important to the human good because it shapes how one pursues other human goods, and people order their lives according to religious judgments about religious truths."

The problem is that a substantial number in society wants to limit religious freedom to the mere act of praying in private. As correctly stated by "In Defense Of Religious Freedom": "Proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare ‘freedom of worship.’ This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatizes the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors. It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life."

Domestically, our laws support this basic human right. Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution states that "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights." This proceeds from the principles declared in Article II, Section 6 which declares that "The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable." Note there’s nothing that says citizens (including government officials) are prohibited to act according to the tenets of their faith. Instead, the Constitution, rather than discouraging religions, actually supports it by mandating tolerance for all religions and encourages the advocacy (or proselytism) of the same.

As cogently put by "In Defense Of Religious Freedom": "In sum, religious freedom has both personal and public dimensions. It is grounded in the dignity of the human person as possessed of a thirst for the truth and a capacity to know it. The state that recognizes religious freedom as inherent and inalienable, a civil right protected by law, thereby acknowledges its incompetence over the sanctuary of human conscience. Religious freedom is fundamental both to the freedom of the individual human person and to the sustaining of just and limited governments."

A people (or government) that doesn’t care for religious freedom won’t care much about anything else at all.