Acts, Declarations, and Decrees

Bert B. Beach January/February 1999
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In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Included was Article 18, which reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."

Today, more than 50 years after the signing of that document, a crucial point must always be remembered: no declaration, no constitutional enactment, and no legislative decree ever created freedom of religion. All that these declarations and decrees do is recognize religious freedom as an already existing right.

Thus, however helpful in expressing the reality of religious freedom, these acts, declarations, and decrees don't create religious freedom any more than Newton's Principia established planetary motion. Instead (like Newton's calculations) they merely recognize what already existed.

If, however, these rights have already existed, and are not, indeed, created by decree--on what foundation are they based? What justification can used for rights considered so sacred, so fundamental, that no government may legitimately take away or deny them? What enduring principles for religious freedom can be established? And, perhaps even more important, what dangers do these principles face?

Foundations of Freedom

1. The first principle on which religious freedom rests is, simply, human individuality. There is infinite value in individuality, a uniqueness that can never be reproduced and, if restricted and damaged, can never be replaced. From a Christian perspective the individual person is worth more than society for several reasons: (a) society cannot exist without individual persons, but individuals can exist without society; (b) the individual faces eternity--everlasting life--but society does not;
Article Author: Bert B. Beach