Religious freedom may be lost — but not by my hand!

Os Guinness-3

Few people are as passionate about religious freedom as Os Guinness.  He and his family were among the victims of the Chinese revolution led by Mao Tse Tung.  The son of medical missionaries, Guinness lost two brothers during the horrendous Henan famine which saw the deaths of five million people during a three month period in 1943.


 “Religious freedom for me is anything but an academic issue,” says Guinness.  But neither is it simply personal—“Religious freedom is one of the world’s most urgent issues at this moment in history.”


Consequently, Guinness’s two most recent books have been devoted religious liberty: The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (2013) and A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (2012).


In two interviews within the last year, Guinness has discussed the precarious position of religious liberty in our moment in both American and world history.  Here are a few of his comments to Christianity Today.


A vulnerable human right


For a start, it is the guarantee and protection of the foundational human right that best allows us the freedom to be human. Also, it is under assault around the world as never before, whether through brutal government oppression (think of China and Iran) or horrifying sectarian violence (think of Nigeria, Egypt, and much of the Middle East). But what makes the situation worse is the failure of the West to live up to the best of its heritage, and therefore to fail in demonstrating an alternative. This is especially tragic in the U.S., where the founders’ settlement, which James Madison called the “true remedy” to the problem, is steadily being destroyed by fifty years of culture warring. And all this is happening at a time when the challenge of “living with our deepest differences” has become an urgent global problem.


The civic contributions of religious liberty


Religious freedom is a foundational human right that should be guaranteed and protected simply for its own sake. But over and above that, numerous studies show that when religious freedom is respected, there are many social and political benefits, such as civility in public life, harmony in society as a whole, and vitality in the entrepreneurial sectors of civil society. Violations of religious freedom, such as the recent health care mandates hitting Catholic hospitals and other religious employers, are therefore not only wrong, but blind. As such requirements spread, they will cramp, if not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. One day our brave new government officials will go out in the morning and find there is no golden egg—and therefore they must spend more, and grow government even larger, to cover the gap created by the diminishing of the faith-based organizations.


The need for reasonable accommodation


Homosexual rights are now an established civil right in much of the West. But a civil right (which is conferred by some society) should never trump a human right like religious liberty (which is inherent in human nature). When that happens, the effect is to undermine all rights altogether, and turn politics into a mere power struggle. Not all homosexual activists have made this mistake, but those who do have fallen for one of the oldest pitfalls in the advance of human rights—the way in which (to put it in Roger Williams’s terms again) those who were once “under the hatches” of the ship of state behave differently when they are “at the helm.” The alternative way forward, when rights clash as they do now, is to seek for “reasonable accommodation” of differing rights, a very different procedure than the zero-sum policy currently being pursued.


Clarifying the issues of diversity and relativism


Many conservatives misunderstand and then twist the term “diversity.” Diversity is simply a social fact. We are in a world where it is now said, because of the media, easy travel, and migration, that “everyone is now everywhere.” What is dangerous is not diversity per se, but relativism—the claim that there is no such thing as truth. Freedom itself cannot be defended on the basis of relativism. So conservatives are wrong to dismiss diversity, just as liberals are foolish to celebrate it without working out its implications. E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One) was once not just America’s motto, but its greatest achievement. But today America is stressing the pluribus at the expense of the unum. The result can only be disastrous. The real question is, “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences are stronger and deeper than ever before? The answer, I believe, is to recover a principled vision of religious freedom for all and forge a civil public square in which it can flourish.


The critical need to maintain a fragile consensus


Civility is too often confused with niceness, with squeamishness over differences, or with the idea that it means ecumenical unity and a compromise over truth. But I would argue that the vision of a civil public square is actually the best protection of “the freedom to be fully faithful,” and at the same time a way to engage others with peaceful persuasion. Expressed philosophically, the differences between faiths are ultimate and irreducible at the level of presuppositions, but fortunately we can build an overlapping consensus at the practical day-to-day level, or a society as diverse as ours would blow itself apart. Needless to say, it is dangerous to neglect that consensus. It may appear fragile, but it is vital and must be sustained.


In an interview with The Christian Post, Os Guinness touched on several other important issues that Christians must consider in their struggle to maintain religious liberty.


We’re Christians, not victims


There are a number of areas where Christians are in danger of not acting Christianly. One is the whole notion of phobia-ization. We have homophobes, we have Islamaphobes. Now certain Christians are saying we should talk about “Christaphobes” or “Christianaphobes.” And that’s terrible. Jesus called us to take up our cross and follow Him. Christians should be broad-shouldered and expect to be attacked and not to try and resist it through dangerous modern notions like phobia-ization.


But equally, we shouldn’t for a moment think that the discrimination we are facing today is in any way tantamount to the persecution that people are facing in other parts of the world. I grew up in China. People are killed for their faith. So, Americans who are whining about persecution here have lost all sense of perspective.


But, I would say, on the other hand, James Madison says it is always important to take alarm at the first assaults on our dignity. And there is in religious freedom a slippery slope. And the current administration, in its time, has done more to undermine religious freedom than probably any administration in American history. That is important. So, it is not what the Iranian Christians are facing, or the Chinese Christians. But, we have got to take notice and stand, not because we are suffering or anything like that, but because we are concerned about it


The Obama administration — not walking its talk


Well, the first year, they spoke badly. Many of them spoke of “freedom of worship,” which is not religious freedom. It’s a shrunken view. Every dictator guarantees freedom of worship, in the sense of what goes on in your head, between your two ears, as long as your mouth is shut.


Then, they started to make really good speeches. And Obama’s was not the best. The best of all was Hillary Clinton’s and probably no American public official has ever given such a good speech on religious freedom. But they haven’t walked the talk.


And now it’s not just what the administration has done on the health care mandate, but universities, like, first Tufts, then Vanderbilt, and now the entire University of California state system has derecognized, not just Christian groups, but Christian, Jewish, Muslim groups, in open violation of religious freedom. It’s all happening during this administration. So, serious things are happening, but we’re not being persecuted.


When Christians don’t walk the talk


To use 19th century language, they try to, in say, fighting for life and for marriages, do the Lord’s work but in the world’s way. So, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. They demonize and stereotype their enemies. And, that’s just the beginning of so much of the ugliness of the Christian Right, which has turned off [young people]. And you would think much of the younger generation would say, “well, I’m not going to be like them in my politics.” But instead, as you know, they’re dropping out of the faith altogether. And that is really tragic.


Well, what’s a better way? If you look at the last 120 years, for most of the 20th century, Evangelicals were privatized. Privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. In other words, a warm-hearted pietism that was privatized politically. And that was disastrous. In one word, it lacked integration.


Then, with the rise of the Moral Majority, you had some Evangelicals, not all, go to the other extreme – politicization, which lacks independence, looking like the political parties and ideologies around them, rather than as Christians.


We should be engaged politically, it’s a free republic, but never equated. In other words, Christians should be the City of God within the City of Man. So, yes, members of the Democratic Party and Republican Party. Engage, but never equated, always thinking and acting Christianly in the midst of the other organizations we are in. And we need to regain that moral position.


How stressing equality endangers liberty


There has always been a competition between liberty and equality. Too much liberty without equality, you can have terrible injustices at great extremes, which we have partly.


But, ever since the French Revolution, those who stress equality at the expense of liberty usually end up disastrously, as the French Revolution did, and as many of the advocates of the Sexual Revolution are now doing.


And, if you look at equality, first, it is artificial. We humans are not naturally equal. Some are faster. Some are stronger. Some are better at making money. Etc., etc. Secondly, the stress on equality always appeals to envy, and it ends by a leveling of society, including excellence. And thirdly, you have to have an empire to make things equal, which is today the state and so the stress on equality leads to a greatly expanded state.


So, the advocates of the Sexual Revolution, that’s what has ruled out religious liberty. Southern California non-discrimination law – no group can say my beliefs are critical to my group. Well, that’s just plain stupid. Do you want Muslims who are going to lead the Hillel society for the Jews? Do you want men to run for leadership of sororities? This is just stupid.


There is a competition, sometimes, a clash between liberty and equality and we have got to think it through much more carefully. Today, many liberals have become highly illiberal in their pursuit of equality, which is closer to the French Revolution than the American Revolution, and it was disastrous there.



Dr. Os Guinness writes and speaks on a broad range of issues at the intersection of Christianity and culture.  He is the author or over 25 books including The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (2013) and A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (2012).


Both interviews referenced above are available online:  Liberals and Conservatives Are Getting Religious Freedom Wrong,” from Christianity Today; “Religious Freedom Necessary for a World of Diversity, but America Is Squandering Its Heritage,” from The Christian Post.



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