The Proper Understanding of Religious Freedom

By: Andrew Bennett

May 10, 2017

In an effort to more effectively articulate the need to uphold religious freedom in the international sphere there is a growing need to more clearly articulate just what it is that is being defended. Having written previously in the Berkley Forum about the need to significantly enhance the religious literacy of foreign services in Western liberal democracies, I would like to expand on one particular aspect of what religious freedom is and also what it is not.

In the mistaken view that it may be better to keep religion and foreign policy separate from one another, religious freedom is understood by some international affairs gurus as merely freedom of association or assembly too narrowly construed. Or, it may be argued by others that defense of religious freedom, especially in the face of repressive blasphemy and apostasy laws, can best be achieved by advocating for more robust actions upholding freedom of expression. In his recent paper "Why Religious Freedom?: Why the Religiously Committed, the Religiously Indifferent, and those Hostile to Religion Should Care," Brigham Young University’s Brett Scharffs challenges these positions:

Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, including foundationally freedom of religion, is historically the taproot of the tree of human rights that was planted with the Magna Carta (…), nourished by the Declaration of Independence (…) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (…), given global recognition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and turned into globally recognized and protected rights protected by international treaties such the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), among others, and scores of post-World War II constitutions…(C)an we expect the leaves and branches to thrive, or even survive, if the roots have been cut? …This can be the consequences of severing the taproots of freedom; or of disconnecting our freedoms from their moral foundations.

The desire by some international relations theorists and practitioners to reject Scharffs’ taproot analogy and to subsume into or even bury freedom or religion and conscience under necessarily interrelated freedoms, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association, is misplaced. Such an approach can result in a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious persecution. The case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is illustrative.

The brutal sentence of floggings, an exorbitant fine, and jail time meted out to Raif Badawi by Saudi judicial authorities in the first instance in 2013, and made more severe following a 2014 Saudi high court review of the charges of apostasy and “insulting Islam,” is a travesty of the first order. Mr. Badawi became the bête noire of the Saudi religious establishment for daring to express his views through his website Free Saudi Liberals. The persecution launched against him has rightly been derided as a violation of his freedom of expression, but his freedom to express what?

Mr. Badawi suffers for having expressed his beliefs, often on religious matters, that opposed the Wahhabi orthodoxy reigning unchecked in the kingdom. At its foundational level, this is a persecution of a man who chooses out of his own free will to believe something different and is motivated by his conscience to express this belief publicly. This gets to the heart of religious freedom and freedom of conscience: It is a freedom reflective of the interior life of the human person. It is a freedom that accompanies the journey of belief from its formation in the interior life of the individual and follows it as it emerges into the public square as professed religious faith or belief and accompanying actions.

Article 18 of the UDHR is the most oft-cited, internationally-accepted definition of freedom of religion, and it offers a concise articulation of what is to be upheld and defended: in brief, the freedom to believe and to act upon one’s beliefs. Yet, unlike the freedoms that relate to public action such as expression, association, and assembly to which it is bound, freedom of religion addresses what Professor David Novak of the University of Toronto has referred to as “the metaphysical need” of the human person. In this sense religious freedom can perhaps be more fully defined as having the initial freedom to contemplate the metaphysical: Who am I? Who am I in relationship to you? Who am I in relationship to the world in which I live? And who am I in relationship to God or to a particular philosophy to which I elect to subscribe and follow? Thought necessarily precedes action. It is only when we have the freedom to contemplate these questions, to form beliefs based on that contemplation (often in relation to a creed), and then to govern our lives according to that creed (theistic or atheistic), that we then can take full advantage of human expression, assembly, and association.

The frequent and mistaken post-modern assumption gaining currency in some corners of diplomacy that freedom of religion can be relegated in favor of upholding a broader freedom of expression or association is to risk divorcing thought from action and to ignore the interior life of human beings, the very bearers of human rights. To diminish the defense of religious freedom in this way emboldens those governments or societal groups who persecute religious and belief minorities. Indeed, it emboldens them with the perhaps false hope that we aren’t watching them too closely.

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The Proper Understanding of Religious Freedom