Religious freedom is proved in the actions, not in the profession. And often the very ones most vocal about freedom are least likely to grant it to others when the moment comes.
Jesus Christ knew this—experienced this. To many of the religious of His day, He was nothing more than a troublemaker. His was a nation under occupation: its daily norms restricted and its religion barely tolerated as a local necessity by the Roman powers. The nation wanted freedom from the secular oppressor. They wanted religious freedom. But they would not grant it to Jesus. Could not recognize the larger principles of freedom He embodied.
My title comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6 and verse 26. The context is Jesus teaching the crowd on the realities of religious identity. His statements were quite polarizing. In much the same language as recorded in Matthew 5, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear that all who follow the ways of the kingdom of heaven will pay a price. They pay a price because so few understand what is entailed by the kingdom of the Spirit.
The narrative in Luke underscores this reality. The teaching moment followed hard on the heels of a healing moment. While in the synagogue, Jesus was approached by a man with a withered right hand. The religious leaders watched Jesus closely to see if He would heal on the Sabbath day. And He did, in full knowledge of their disapproval. After all, God is the author of religious freedom, and a good God wants only good for His creation.
The reaction was quite amazing. "They were filled with madness; and communed with one another what they might do to Jesus" (Luke 6:11).
Our world today is filled even more with religion, or at least religious activity, than when Jesus was here. Everyone wants their view of faith, their religious agenda, to be protected, even advanced, but few are willing to grant that right to others. All too often there is that same madness of intolerance that so easily leads to judgment halls and beyond.
Today we have the irony that Jesus warned of. No one dares speak ill of religious liberty. And a liberal, more historically enlightened world no doubt believes that this must be so. Even as the larger world, and some of that enlightened center, continues to act in ways that lead directly to the same madness and the same violent conclusions.
The year 2011 began on a gloriously incongruent point for religious liberty. Pope Benedict XVI themed his New Year's message on religious liberty. "The privileged way to build peace" is how he put it. At the outset he said his purpose was "to underline how the great religions can constitute an important factor of unity and peace for the human family." And, correctly, he identified both secular and "fundamentalist" forces as variously threatening religious freedom. It remained for the pope's January 10 address to the diplomatic corps in Rome for him to get more specific. He decried violence against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, specifically, but neglected a whole waterfront of religious conflict around the world. Perhaps he had an inkling of what was in store for the area, particularly Egypt.
The president of the United States also began the year with an early proclamation on religious liberty. His January 14 release for Religious Freedom Day, 2011, repeated Jefferson's 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which held that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion." The president, too, condemned attacks in Iraq and Egypt, and said that "the United States stands with those who advocate for free religious expression and works to protect the rights of all people to follow their conscience, free from persecution and discrimination."
On January 1 there was a well-planned bombing of a Christian Coptic church in Alexandria that doubtless figured in the president's proclamation and the pope's second speech. It followed years of harassment of the minority Copts, both by government forces and by radical Islam. It preceded planned Egyptian presidential elections in September and could not been seen as much other than a planned provocation by Islamic radicals in anticipation of the elections. President Mubarak blamed Al-Qaida outsiders, which ran counter to his usual policy of blaming the increasingly restive Muslim Brotherhood. While no one, absent the hindsight we all have now, could have anticipated how a single street vendor incident in Tunisia could have inflamed revolt in Egypt and elsewhere, we all should have remarked on the ominous, violent religious turn in Egyptian politics.
Now the world—at least the world of the Middle East—is turned upside down. And the amazing thing is that everyone sees it as a secular moment. How could it be? This is not a secular part of the world. Its very baseline historic assumptions relate to religion and religious conflict. It is an area that sees itself variously in conflict or competition with a world it defines as either Jewish or Christian. It is an area tinged with madness over religious insults.
How did Mubarak come to power? He was the vice president when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by a rogue Muslim Brotherhood-instigated military faction because of his peace with Israel. To be sure, Mubarak ruled with an authoritarian hand—as is the style in that part of the world. To be sure, he advanced the fortunes of an oligarchic elite, as is the style in that part of the world—and elsewhere, if we are totally honest about human tendency, whatever the system. But it is worth remembering the main focus of his repression and paranoia. It was the Muslim Brotherhood he repeatedly cracked down on. Not because he, in a Muslim-dominated society, rejected his faith, but because he feared its political agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood, for those who care to read even briefly in its founding documents, is not set for religious pluralism or a secular state. Its agenda is religious domination and sharia law throughout a Muslim world to be expanded into a global caliphate. So much for religious freedom—for Muslims as well as Christians and other faiths!
The West is now caught in a giant ideological trap. We dare not speak out against an apparent upwelling of liberal self-determinism in the area. And no doubt many of the young people Twittered into action are idealistic. We seem reticent even to acknowledge the less liberal, religiously absolutist powers that have been stoking the fires for at least two generations.
It is time for more than fine speeches. It is time to call the shots as they really are. It is time to recognize that in religion as in politics the majority are seldom correct, are seldom inclined to grant to others what they want.
Even in the United States the "street" acts as though it is all that counts. While the Founders, in a self-assured revolutionary manner, did use the street and such events as "the Boston Massacre" to nudge their fellow colonists toward separation, they understood that freedom was never protected by the majority opinion alone. They set up a representative government and a series of checks and balances to frustrate the efforts of individuals or factions to diminish the principles of freedom. Even as they ratified a Constitution, similar aspirations in France were bubbling up in a less- controlled way that blended hatred of the ruling class, hatred of religion, and worship of citizen opinion into a witch's brew that led to "the terror" and culminated in a most unrepublican attempt at European conquest.
Somehow we must keep the calls for religious freedom uppermost, even as a revolutionary self-determinism sweeps Egypt and beyond. Religious freedom is an absolute, not to be redefined by the interests of a majority. Self-determinism is at root an outgrowth of a God-given individuality; but when the individual surrenders to the mob, injustice ensues.
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."