THIS weekend, some Americans, at least, have been pondering the meaning of religious liberty. January 16th has been designated Religious Freedom Day because it is the anniversary of what Thomas Jefferson regarded as one of his greatest achievements, ranking with the Declaration of Independence: the approval of a statute in his native Virginia which overturned the entrenched status of the Anglican church and set all faiths on an equal footing before the law. Although he was an Anglican himself, of a very free-thinking sort, he admired the integrity of his non-conformist compatriots and came to the view that religious privilege damaged everybody, including the privileged. The statute’s opening lines reflect the American founder’s mastery of language and clarity of thought.
“ Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do.”
It’s probably just coincidence, but this sonorous passage seems to echo a verse in the Koran: “If God had willed, he could surely have made you all one single community, but he willed otherwise in order to test you….” Anyway, whatever inspired them, these well-crafted words about the “hypocrisy and meanness” of faith enforced by state power must rank as one of the eloquent critiques of theocracy ever made.
To mark the anniversary, the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and one of his fellow commissioners co-signed an op-ed which drew attention to the lamentable—and in many ways worsening—state of religious liberty in the world today. They wrote, for example, that:
“ China and North Korea exemplify secular tyrannies that suppress religious groups across the board. Others like Iran and Saudi Arabia enthrone one religion or religious interppretation while often brutalising those embracing alternatives, from dissenting Muslims to Christians to Bahais.”
Also singled out was Myanmar, a country where “Buddhist extremists have furiously assaulted Rohingya Muslims.” The co-authors also recalled that back in 2014, a Christian bishop in Baghdad had predicted that the nihilist fury of Islamic State’s terror would in due course reach Europe; this forecast had come horribly true.
As it happens, the two authors of this article are both Roman Catholic but they belong in different ideological corners, and they would have different ideas about the meaning of religious freedom in a domestic American context. USCIRF chairman Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, is a prominent “theocon” intellectual who strongly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and supports the right of citizens to opt out of things that offend their religious conscience, such as catering for gay weddings. His co-author Father Thomas Reese is on the liberal end of Catholicism; as a magazine editor, he incurred the displeasure of the Vatican with his ideas on priestly celibacy and has argued that Catholics should accept same-sex marriage as a legal reality.
But faced with the truly appalling things that are happening around the world to religious dissenters (such as the death sentence for apostasy passed on a Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia) the two men have no difficulty coming together and making common cause. They agreed, for example, on urging the Obama administration to revise and enlarge its list of countries which are seen as serious violators of religious freedom; the current, nine-strong list has not been reviewed since mid-2014.
In Jefferson’s time, too, the precise meaning of religious freedom was hotly contested. Even after the constitution barred any established religion at federal level, many individual states retained an established creed during the early years of the Union. But however differently they defined freedom, those early Americans felt they could recognise tyranny when it was staring them in the face. One cannot but hope that remains the case today.