Tag Archives: freedom of religion

Freedom of Religion: the Right to Choose

Freedom of religion is based on the right to choose your faith community, that is, to associate with those who share your spiritual journey.

Freedom of religion is not something that began with the U.S. Constitution. The Roman Empire generally accepted the right of its subject populations to practice whatever religious beliefs they chose, so long as they did not appear to threaten the empire.

The Jewish Jehovah God was intimately bound to his people, caring for them and demanding a certain standard from them. Prophets tied the worship of God to justice and special concern for the vulnerable. God required his people to worship him and him alone, but the rest of the world could go its own way, as long as no other nation interfered with the Jewish worship of their God.

With Christianity and Islam, a different outlook emerged. At first, Christians saw the gospel as good news to be proclaimed, but they sought no political power. Only later did political leaders try to fuse Christianity with governing authority. This joining led to a perverted view of Christianity as simply one more lever of power.

Islam, the other evangelistic religion, conquered lands for their religion but generally allowed Christians and Jews to live in their own religious communities so long as they paid a tax for the privilege. Unlike Christianity, Islam was from the beginning a state religion.

Lands influenced by Christianity began to see the value of individuals choosing their own religious communities or no community. Christianity was a religion of the heart, not of an external state. Christianity shook off the shackles of Christendom.

When a religion—any religion—begins to force itself on those who wish to believe otherwise, that religion begins to lose its moral authority. When religion must force itself onto a society, it has failed.

Subversives

 

From the time native Americans dealt with British immigrants in the 1500’s at Jamestown and later at Plymouth, diverse peoples have migrated to the country to be known as the United States. Many of the early immigrants were Christians of various Protestant persuasions. Jews entered, too, as well as Catholics and a few atheists and agnostics. Some of the founding fathers were desists, a belief based on reason rather than revelation.

After the United States was formed, Europeans looked askance at the U.S. Constitution for not creating an established church. Surely the nation would fail, lacking any moral compass.

Instead, religion flourished in America. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians immigrated in larger numbers, escaping turmoil in the old countries. Catholicism bothered some Protestants, with its ties to Pope and priests, but eventually Catholics were incorporated into the mainstream.

By the time of the Second World War, the majority of Americans wouldn’t have disagreed with their designation as a “Christian” nation, or at least a Judo-Christian one.

The aftermath of that war and the ones to follow again upset established suppositions. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims joined the American mix.

Now, it seems, atheism is the latest bubble in the cauldron. As noted, atheists have been present since earlier times, but they have increased in number. According to some reports, the “angry” phase has passed, and the presence of atheism is accepted by many as a part of the mainstream.

Whenever a group loses dominant status, its members may fight to retain their position by the use of laws and/or force. Such a reaction is seldom successful in this country. The freedom from religion as well as to practice any religion runs deeply. However, if Christians take the early church for their example, they will not only survive but thrive. The early church was a subversive minority in a pleasure seeking world directed by elitist power brokers. They showed their faith, not by seeking domination, but by living what they believed.

Christians have been here before. The Roman Empire knew them well.

Religious Communities: Players on the World Stage

 

“The success of American diplomacy in the next decade will be measured in no small part by its ability to connect with the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world whose identity is defined by religion.”

—From “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The United States was a multi-cultural society from its beginning. The first Jewish congregation is dated to the colonial period, in Rhode Island, in the mid 1600’s.

Maryland was founded as a colony for Catholics, while many of the New England settlements were begun by Reformed Protestants. Baptists headed to the freedom of Rhode Island. Some of the country’s founding fathers were deists and even agnostics. Later, atheists and Muslims, Hindus and Orthodox Christians and countless others joined the religious mix.

Our ancestors left behind the world of established religions, countries whose identities were bound up in a particular religion, places where one might be persecuted for different beliefs. They left behind the wars of religion which so devastated Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Eventually, Middle Eastern immigrants left countries where Crusaders had fought Turks and other Islamist believers, as well as Jews.

We began a nation where the First Amendment to our constitution allowed for a religious freedom unknown in the old countries.

The countries they left are still there, and many of them consider religion a part of their national identity. Rightfully, we urge them to protect minorities. However, we should refrain from a feeling of superiority. Critics suggest our tolerance risks becoming antagonism toward any religion. Tolerance differs from denigration. If we denigrate religion, we will have a hard time working in a world where the majority find comfort and guidance from it.

Religion’s Major Role in the New World Order

 

In the late 1970’s, Iranian students, inspired by Islamic leaders, seized the United States embassy in Tehran.

444 DaysThumbing their noses at international law, they held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Religion entered as a major actor on the world stage. Over three decades later, the murder of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, by religious terrorists indicates that the religious script is still in play.

What happened? Though at the time of the Iranian revolution, the Soviet Union would not tumble for a few more years, the Cold War was thawing. The United States and the Soviet Union signed agreements limiting nuclear weapons. Egypt and Israel endorsed the Camp David accords. Optimists saw glimpses of an upward march to worldwide peace, individual freedom, and economic advancement.

Not all were buying in. The money from Iran’s oil industry allowed Western-style consumerism that seemed empty to many Iranians.

Iran hostage crisesThe student revolt was nationalistic, an attempt to root out foreign influence and government brutality, but it included yearnings for a less secular culture. Now recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have dethroned secular governments and elected Islamists.

How can the United States, which prizes freedom of religion for all its citizens, deal with states whose laws favor one specific religion?

In recognition of the need for more understanding, the U.S. State Department created the position of an Ambassador for International Religious Freedom in 1998. Its mission is to promote religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. The report for religious freedom in 2011 is now public.

 

When Religion Is A Pawn

 

When the former Soviet Union was ruled by an atheistic communist regime, Christians in the West worried about the fate of Russian believers. The government shunned and sometimes persecuted them. After the fall of Soviet communism, Christians hoped the new Russian government would embrace religious freedom.

The situation has improved for Christians of the Orthodox persuasion. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin stands accused of using the Russian Orthodox church as a means of bolstering his less than democratic regime. Some Russians are concerned by the power the church appears to be gaining in Putin’s government. Reports suggest that the church’s influence may be one reason for Russia’s support of the bloody Assad regime in Syria.

Syria is Russia’s remaining ally in the Middle East and hosts a Russian naval base. The church, rightly, is concerned about the fate of their fellow Orthodox believers in Syria should the Assad regime fall and be replaced by a possibly Islamist government. However, to suggest that Assad should be allowed to slaughter innocent civilians so that Christians might—possibly—be better protected, seems contrary to Jesus’ teachings, to say the least.

Religious freedom must be at the forefront of any Christian agenda, for Christian believers as well as for adherents of other persuasions. We cannot equate religious freedom, however, with a tyranny that uses Christians to support a brutal regime. Christians must reject any power play which employs them as political pawns. Jesus lived his life in direct opposition to political gamesmanship, even to his willing death on a Roman cross.

Letter From Prison

 

Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor in Iran, has been jailed since October, 2009, for issues related to his faith. Recently a letter, reportedly from him and written in prison, was released by Present Truth Ministries. I don’t know if the pastor wrote it in English or it was translated, but I quote the entire letter as I found it. It is longer than my usual blog. I justify the length because I am touched by echos in the letter reminiscent of New Testament letters written by the apostle Paul while in prison,. The letter follows:

Greetings from your servant and younger brother in Christ, Youcef Nadarkhani.

To: All those who are concerned and worried about my current situation.

First, I would like to inform all of my beloved brothers and sisters that I am in perfect health in the flesh and spirit. And I try to have a little different approach from others to these days, and consider it as the day of exam and trial of my faith. And during these days which are hard in order to prove your loyalty and sincerity to God, I am trying to do the best in my power to stay right with what I have learned from God’s commandments.

I need to remind my beloveds, though my trial due has been so long, and as in the flesh I wish these days to end, yet I have surrendered myself to God’s will.

I am neither a political person nor do I know about political complicity, but I know that while there are many things in common between different cultures, there are also differences between these cultures around the world which can result in criticism, which most of the times response to this criticisms will be harsh and as a result will lengthen our problems.

From time to time I am informed about the news which is spreading in the media about my current situation, for instance being supported by various churches and famous politicians who have asked for my release, or campaigns and human rights activities which are going on against the charges which are applied to me. I do believe that these kind of activities can be very helpful in order to reach freedom, and respecting human rights in a right way can bring forth positive results.

I want to appreciate all those are trying to reach this goal. But at the other hand, I’d like to announce my disagreement with the insulting activities which cause stress and trouble, which unfortunately are done with the justification (excuse) of defending human rights and freedom, for the results are so clear and obvious for me.

I try to be humble and obedient to those who are in power, obedience to those in authority which God has granted to the officials of my country, and pray for them to rule the country according to the will of God and be successful in doing this. For I know in this way I have obeyed God’s word. I try to obey along with those whom I see in a common situation with me. They never had any complaint, but just let the power of God be manifested in their lives, and though sometimes we read that they have used this right to defend themselves, for they had this right, I am not an exception as well and have used all possibilities and so forth and am waiting for the final result.

So I ask all the beloved ones to pray for me as the holy word has said. At the end I hope my freedom will be prepared as soon as possible, as the authorities of my country will do with free will according to their law and commandments which are answerable to.

May God’s Grace and Mercy be upon you now and forever. Amen.

Youcef Nadarkhani

Established versus Servant

 

The young United States struggled with an experiment. The first change (amendment) to the new Constitution forbade Congress to make laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” Some feared the nation would become godless. Almost every European nation (from which the country had its beginnings)  recognized one religion as the only valid one, some branch of the Christian faith. Other parts of the world also tended to respect one religious tradition above others, Hinduism or Islam or Confucianism or Shintoism.

To the surprise of many, Christians grew in number in the new nation and influenced its culture. Many thought of the country as”Christian,” almost as though the nation had produced an established religion, as in Europe. The Christian way became blurred, civil religion often equated with God’s spiritual kingdom.

Christians are called to be a prophetic voice. Sometimes people will listen, as in the early years in this country, and sometimes not. The Old Testament prophet Jonah fought God’s call to preach to Ninevah, his enemy. Amazingly, when Jonah finally carried out his calling and preached, the enemy listened and repented.

James, an early disciple of Jesus, also was called. Many listened to him, but he made enemies, too, and became the first Christian martyr. Interesting that James should be the first martyr. His mother had wanted her son to have a special place in Jesus’ kingdom, probably expecting it to be a political kingdom. Jesus pointed out to James and the other disciples how the Gentiles lord it over their subjects. His disciples, however, were to be different. They were to be servants.

Always, we are called to be a remnant voice, to value servanthood, not become entangled and ensnared by a quest after power “as the Gentiles do.”

Religion: As American as Apple Pie

 

The first religious controversies in the new United States erupted between the “established” churches and the more spontaneous religious persuasions: Methodists, Baptists, and others. If the colony or the state didn’t have an established church, many religious citizens supposed, a godless society would result.

Out of the controversy came the First Amendment to the Constitution which forbade Congress to  set up an established religion. Americans were free to choose, without coercion. No persuasion was to be favored by the government.

Amazingly, the citizens of this country with no government-sponsored church, knowing a hodgepodge of differing persuasions, became more religious than Europe with its established churches.

A few Jews were present in America from early days. The first synagogue was established in Rhode Island in 1763.  Discrimination existed against Jewish groups in certain times and places, but the country never suffered the pogroms and organized persecution of the Old World. More Jews fled to North America for freedom and safety and founded thriving communities.

Catholics began coming in large numbers in the nineteenth century, eventually becoming the largest individual religious denomination in the U.S. Irish Catholics, particularly, were discriminated against at first but soon became part of the mainstream, as evidenced by the election of John Kennedy as the first Catholic president in 1960.

Now Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus have come. Atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious persuasion grow in numbers also. (See previous blog, Religious Freedom: Going Deeper.)

If past history is any indication, competition sharpens religious conviction over the long haul. Though some drop away, others rediscover the core of their faith and with it, renewal.

Religion and Government

How much should religion and government interact? This issue plays out in the small North African country of Tunisia, a majority Islamic country where I lived from 1997 to 2000.

Tunisians began the “Arab spring” by ousting their secularist dictator little more than a year ago. In January they held their first fair election in years. A mildly Islamist party won the majority of the vote.

The leader of the new government, Hamadi Jebali, spent years in prison for his opposition to the government of dictator Ben Ali, much of it in harsh solitary confinement. Now he’s the popularly elected head of the Tunisian government.

Tunisia has a large, educated middle class, many of whom have made plain that they do not want repressive religious laws. Jebali has indicated his understanding of their apprehension. His party has formed the current government with two secularist parties.

The results in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, and other countries of North Africa and the Middle East follow the ouster of regimes which were secular but often brutal against their opponents. Now that more power is assumed by the people, how will democracy and religion play their roles?

Some American Christians desire more religion in their government. How will church and state in this country compare to mosque and state in Tunisia?

Freedom of Religion and the Religious

Sectarian violence flared this week in Egypt. Coptic Christians, who comprise about ten percent of the Egyptian population, wonder if the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt but secular regime will help or hurt minority religions like Christianity. Will a more religiously oriented state lead to less freedom of religion for non-Muslims?

The Muslim Brotherhood, with Islamist leanings, may win greater political power in Egyptian parliamentary elections scheduled later this year. Members of the Brotherhood suffered under Mubarak. Such suffering, some analysts say, has produced a more committed membership, organized to campaign more effectively than other groups, including secular ones.

Must one be secular to practice tolerance?

As Christians in this country become increasingly aware of hostility and the decline of their influence, the temptation grows to seek political power. I not only lived as a minority Christian in several countries, but I’m a descendant of Baptists who struggled for religious freedom.  I do hope we American Christians do not follow the path some are suggesting for the Muslim Brotherhood.

A Divide, Not Between Religions, But Religion and the Lack of it.

As religion has become less important in individual lives in Western nations, it has become more important in many non-Western nations, such as Saudi Arabia. According to a recent article in The Economist (July 9-15, 2011, p. 57, “Polling Religion, Unequal Zeal” ), http://www.economist.com/node/18926205
the world’s religious divide is not so much about different religions (i.e., Christianity and Islam) as about “the lack of any religion in the public or private lives of many Westerners.”

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I worshiped as a Christian in house churches discretely located within housing compounds. Raids on Christian services were rare. Most arrests of Americans in Saudi Arabia were not for religious practices. They were more likely to be for excessive consumption or sale of liquor. The use of drugs and pornography also led to arrests. In short, judging from the arrests, Christian beliefs did not bother authorities nearly so much as behavior against Muslim as well as Christians norms.

The American Christian characters of my novel Singing in Babylon know a sense of exile not only in Saudi Arabia but also when they return to the United States.
http://scribblingsfromexile.blogspot.com/2011/01/christian-exile-in-babylon.html
Though their story is not my own, this sense of exile does mirror my experience on returning from the Muslim-majority countries where I lived. I worshiped as a minority there. So also I do here, though, thankfully, without fear of arrest.

That Saudi Arabia does not allow freedom of religion is certainly a matter of concern, but another concern is how few Americans practice it there or here.

 

The Right to Persuade Versus Intolerance

The doorbell rings. Two women want to discuss a religion you are not interested in. You tell them no thanks and shut the door.

You notice that you have lost weight on your new diet. You plan to tell your slightly overweight friend about the diet. She might like to try it, too.

You open the mail. A letter from your bank outlines a service you do not want. You toss it in the trash.

You read an article about two schools of thought concerning a new treatment for skin cancer. It will require more testing and rigorous debate as to which has the best cure rate, least side effects, and so on.

You read another article about Bhutan, an Asian nation in the eastern Himalaya mountains, predominantly Buddhist. Bhutan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but conversion is unlawful. Buddhism is, for many, a part of their country’s culture. Bhutan’s Christians have sought clarification. Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Yoser Thinley states his opposition to religious conversion: “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

When do we have the right to attempt the persuasion of someone to a set of convictions that are meaningful to us? And to what degree should we persuade? Or should we ever persuade?

Is it intolerant to believe, as in one of the above examples, that one cancer treatment may be better than another and to lobby for that practice?

Attempts to persuade range from political and religious arguments to medical debates and ads for commercial products. Some are hardly life altering, but some are. Some can be proved by the scientific method, and some can’t.

Our Constitution gives this country’s citizens the right to freedom of speech and of religion. A few use these freedoms in ways that we abhor, but diverse views are a necessary part of growth and advancement. Cultures become static if debate and change are forbidden. Political ads may annoy us but few of us would choose to live in Syria or other countries where opposing views that question the regime are not allowed. Persuasion becomes intolerance when the persuader fails to respect another’s opinions or the person’s right to choose or to be left alone if they wish.

Of course, opening a culture to possible change is risky. Could Christianity threaten our American way of life—discouraging rampant consumerism, for example—if genuinely practiced?