It is hard to find anyone unashamedly opposed to religious liberty. It is becoming even harder to find that rare person who understands the principle at play and will grant religious freedom to beliefs they find abhorrent and to peoples they find vaguely threatening. Because, truth be told, for most people religious freedom is toleration disguised by unconcern and colored by NIMBY (not in my backyard).
A generation ago we in the West struggled against the rise of godless Communism. This now almost passé ideology seemed poised to take the world by storm. In the wake of a debilitating Second World War many found it hard to identify with a God who remained silent as all the good young men died and the life of virtue rewarded gave way to chaos. They found it harder still to trust the great powers whose rivalries had precipitated much of the killing. They were attracted to Communism and its idealism. They were attracted to the freedoms it offered: freedom for self-determination and freedom from religion.
Back then this magazine featured many an article documenting the persecution of Christianity and other faiths behind the Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill styled the emerging divide between Western democracies and the Communist bloc. The persecution was real enough, with many sent to gulags for their faith, and others pushed to the margins of the new society and eventually declared mentally unstable for persisting in their beliefs.
But even today I think many misapprehend where Communism was coming from in regard to faith. Marx famously condemned religion as the opiate of the people. As a historical commentary on Russia in particular he was quite correct: religion had been used by church and state in concert to control the peasants and ensure their passivity. But Communism—in theory, at least—was less opposed to faith than it was in competition with it. Communism was in essence the religion of humanity’s own efforts to build a secular paradise. It saw traditional religion as misguided and empty. The ideologues who replaced the first revolutionary despots like Stalin (who sent many a pastor and priest to a Northern death) were more inclined to educate people away from their superstitions. They placed much hope in raising a new generation of young Communists who would be unencumbered by the old superstitions. And the old people: by and large they left them to their religious delusions. They even provided churches for them, and the right to worship quietly as a set-apart handicapped class, soon to die off and leave the field to the true believers of Communism. Of course there was persecution, but most of it revolved around protecting the next generation from the taint of religion.
And, curiously, the Communist states invariably had some sort of guarantee of religious freedom in their constitutions or manifestos. They had to, because they believed in human freedom. They just didn’t believe in religion.
They might have gotten away with it longer if the god of human progress hadn’t failed to deliver. He went belly-up on too many five-year plans and a debilitating arms race.
The Protestant Enlightenment thinkers who informed the principles now enshrined in the religious freedom guarantees of the United States Constitution saw faith as a preeminent human right from which all others flowed. They studiously tried to avoid a religious state, which then might have regarded some other forms of religion with the same jealous eye that Communism used on religion. They separated the aims of the state from religion and, by defining religion as a generic right of all humanity “leveled the playing field “of faith.
Well, as with Communism, so this construct has foundered on the shoals of competing ideologies. During the Cold War we caricatured the debate as between godless Communism and the free Christian West. But of course it was never quite that simple. The debate had more to do with a challenge to the social and economic models of the West. But, like the characters in Orwell’s Animal Farm, freedom, even religious freedom talk, was often used to cover for the bigger conflict. That was fine, but it has blinded us a little to our present reality on religious freedom.
For a long time religious freedom in the United States has flirted with religious entitlement for certain mainline interests and toleration for the rest. Every now and again the veil is drawn aside by events and we see it more clearly. For example: the Hobby Lobby case, whatever else it settled, shows a readiness to project into the larger society the preferences of a particular faith view—even as it removes choice for those who would differ. Hobby Lobby had the courts legalizing the dynamic, but one can easily go to certain public schools in the so-called Bible belt and find pretty open religious instruction of a type that the local community approves—even as in other, usually urban, areas the teachers are overzealous about reducing any faith talk below the blather of secular utopia. And the veil really lifted recently in Maryland when in response to non-Christian groups like Muslims demanding that their holidays be honored too, the school board removed all religious holidays from the calendar. I may have my own favorite religious day, but the state should not be tipping its hand in this regard.
We are in a period of global religious rivalry. For better or worse, the West (and the U.S. in particular) has made “our way of life” emblematic of a projection of Christian values. So far we have maintained an agreeable tolerance to the dissonance that nonmajority religions have brought to this image. Partly this comes from good intentions and partly from prudent policy, because many minorities are too large to offend and the prospect of real religious conflict is daunting, I am sure.
However, with the emergence of ISIL, something largely unforeseen may be about to warp us back to cold war assumptions of religious identity.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is on one level a perfectly explainable political phenomenon. The artificial states of the Middle East, established by British and French whim, are in turmoil following the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Arab Spring. What would normally be nationalistic revolution has unfortunately been sidetracked into an Islamic jihad to reestablish what has become for them a mythical caliphate, which in reality was the increasingly corrupt and brutal Ottoman Turkish Empire. It perpetrated the genocide of the Armenians and, curiously, stood in the way of Arab self-determination.
The real danger of ISIL, as I see it, is its appeal to a whole generation of young men in Western countries: England, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Thousands from your neighborhood and mine have left to make the dream a reality—even if it means cutting off a few heads. But the caliphate has global aspirations, and already these young men are threatening their own countries with warlike rhetoric. Soon—and sooner if the bombing works—they will be returning with their bloody religious agenda.
This is now to be the real test for us. Will we have the patience to root them out individually, or will the era of toleration end? Will all minority religions find themselves under a cloud? Will all minority religions be suspected of sedition, even as the mainstream girds for civil war? Will there be internment camps, as there were for native-born Japanese in World War II, or will it just be containment by legal distinction—all religions are equal, but some religions are more equal than others?
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."