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Freedom Of Conscience

Freedom of conscience

During the State of Europe Forum 2011 in Budapest (Hungary), Dr. Os Guinness explained why Christians should argue in favour of freedom of conscience for everyone.

Europe is potentially positioned to be the pioneer for the world in giving an answer, and Christians have to take the pioneering job.

One of the world’s greatest questions today is how we live with deep differences, especially when those differences are religious or ideological. The last century was the most murderous century in history. And as people point out, it was not just war with a hundred million dead. It was not just politics with the repression of another hundred million killed, but ethnic and sectarian violence. And clearly the opening years of the twenty first century show how that is continuing.

Many people would say that the American experiment provides the answer. Their own framework is called the true remedy for this issue. But anyone who knows America knows the deep culture warring going on today and Europe, while it is floundering at the moment on this issue, actually has the potential to lead the world in showing how we live with deep differences in a world that is global. Let me set out to you six steps in thinking it through. I am sure some of you will disagree strongly with me but I think we should be on the forefront in addressing these issues in the public square.

Step one : know why freedom of conscience is crucial for everybody

Religious liberty is scorned today. It is considered liberty for the religious, at best a second-class right to freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. But our reformers well understood, and the pioneers of religious liberty well understood, that religious liberty and freedom of conscience is the first of the political rights. Logically, freedom of assembly assumes and requires freedom of speech. This freedom, in turn, assumes and requires freedom of conscience. You want to speak on those issues of which you are convinced because you are bound by the dictates of conscience. It is the first of the political rights.

Secondly, it is the key to a civil society. Much is spoken of a civil society today and the health of societies, if between the average citizens at the bottom and the government at the top, there is a thick layering of organizations in which people can volunteer, participate, donate, and so on. And in such an exploding entrepreneurial world, the freedom of people to pursue what their visions are, is fundamental. And freedom of conscience actually underlies a civil society.

But freedom of conscience is also critical to social harmony, because it is the truth that allows us to bring together strong political convictions with strong political civility. You can see many countries have one or the other, but very few have both. I often speak in China. All Chinese have is strong diversity and strong harmony but no liberty. And it’s actually a respect for freedom of conscience which allows you to have diversity with liberty, and yet social harmony. And we need to make these arguments strongly in the public square: why freedom of conscience is crucial for everybody.

Step two : appreciate why and how freedom of conscience is threatened today

Let me point to three broad movements undermining freedom of conscience:

The first is the marriage of separationism, as a legal notion, with an aggressive secularism, as a philosophy, which is slowly excluding religious exercise and expressions in many of our countries. We all know the individual cases.

Secondly, freedom of conscience is threatened by a vision of Islamic activism which wants to benefit Islam and privilege over other faiths. And I am especially referring to notions of defamation or blasphemy. And what you see if you follow it carefully is a very radical orientation of freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience used to protect the right of believers, not beliefs. It is now being shifted to protect the rights of believers and in particular one set of believers, namely Muslim believers. That is a radical disempowerment of freedom of conscience which we should resist on principle in the name of everyone.

Thirdly, we have a radical assault from the overreach of certain homosexual activists. For their own tactics they declare that the homosexual rights are a civil right. And in the name of that civil right, all other rights can be seen as an obstruction or an obstacle, including the rights of freedom of conscience.

Now anyone who looks at that carefully can see that what they are doing is not just establishing their right at the expense of others, they are actually undermining all rights altogether. Because if a right now considered fashionable is able to trump other rights once considered fashionable but now considered clearly alienable, clearly all rights are a matter of power only. And the whole human rights programme is a sham. I partly welcome that overreach because some of the thoughtful liberals are now seeing that gay activists are arguing for something that cuts off the very branch on which they are sitting.

Step three : recognize the weaknesses in Christian responses so far

First, many Christians argue the law alone rather than what Alexis de Tocqueville called the habits of the heart. It is a secular fallacy to think that rights and freedom are established only by law. De Tocqueville pointed out rightly that freedom is best established when the habits of the heart, the traditional moral standards, the customs, and so on, respect those rights and freedoms. That is the real guarantee. You can see since the 1920s how secular liberals have put all their weight on law and litigiousness. Sadly, as many in the United States, and now increasingly in Europe show, Christians are aligned on law alone, which is absolute folly. We are playing their game and it’s a game that will not work.

A second Christian mistake in responses is to argue in defence on our interests and not the common good. On Jewish journalist once said to me in the 1980s in America: “Evangelicals sound like as if they talk of justice but really they are concerned with the just…us”. If we sort out the common good and if we aim that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are always best respected, that the rights of the smallest minority and the least popular community are respected, then our rights too will be respected. We need to be careful how we are arguing.

The third mistake, which is maybe more common in North America than in Europe, has been the extraordinary lies on academic studies. I am not a Marxist, but here is where Karl Marx is right: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways but the point is to change it”. In America we have academic studies on the problems of religious liberty and freedom of conscience coming out of our ears, but we haven’t done a single thing to affect the public square, which is where the issues are fought. And I’ve seen it certainly in Britain people talking in the same way: “One more study, one more analysis of this”. The real challenge is to produce a vision of the public square which could be established and which could guarantee these things.

Step four : assess the different options for the public square

The simple fact is that many of the western settlements on religion and public life, which go back centuries, are under pressure today because of things like immigration and they are not working. And so the challenge is: which will be the vision of a settlement for the future? 

One option is what is called the vision of a sacred public square, where one religion is given a privileged position and everyone else is second grade. Now that, of course, is the condition of the established churches still, including in my own country, and that is the position which many people feared in the United States, with the rise of the Christian right, that this would come about. We can see in the modern conditions that a deep part of the European secularity is a profound reaction against the corruptions of the state churches of the past. And you can see sadly in America today, much of the turning against the Christian faith among the younger generations is precisely because of the excesses and the lack of wisdom of the Christian right. We need to learn the profound lessons of the hang of the reactions against establishments in the conditions of modern diversity.

The second broad option is what is called a naked publicsquarewhere all religions are strictly excluded, although of course as we know secularism thereby gets smuggled through the back door. But as you look, you can see on the one hand that it is highly illiberal, because most people still have religious assumptions and religious affiliations, and if their voices are excluded from the public square, it is an exclusion of free speech. On the other hand, in many countries, that also undercuts the legitimation of a country and that is certainly true of the European Union too.

The third option is what is called a civil public square, which is a vision of public life where everyone, of all faiths, based on freedom of conscience, are free to enter and engage in public life on the basis of their faith and their worldview but – and here is the but – within a broadly agreed framework of the rights and responsibilities of each citizen towards all other citizens. Whatever is a right for the Christian is a right for the Jew is a right for an atheist, is a right for a Muslim, and so on. We’ve got to assess which of those fulfils best our Christian understanding, in this case of justice and freedom and community and then argue for that publicly.

Step five : clear up the misunderstandings of civility in public life and of the civil public square

Civility is not niceness. It is often easily dismissed as if it is a tea-party etiquette or dinner manners or whatever, as if we all love each other long enough, everything will go well. That is nonsense. Civility is a classical virtue and a duty whereby citizens can negotiate their differences with other citizens whose rights they profoundly respect. It is a classical virtue extraordinarily important in our diverse communities today.

The second misunderstanding of civility is that civility is a matter of interfaith dialogue. Almost always when we are talking about religious tensions, people go towards interfaith dialogue, whether we are talking about Muslim call for a common word or a Karen Armstrong type vision. No, as Evangelicals, we agree with the philosophers who point out that the differences between faiths are irreducible and ultimate. And that never ever will there be a common unity, however loving we are or however long we talk. The differences are irreducible and ultimate.

The commonalities of the level of the political framework are the so-called three R’s, the rights, responsibilities and respect with which people of each faith are able to negotiate and engage people of other faiths. And of course it is that vision which allows people to be truly faithful to their own faith, including us Evangelicals. And yet know how we engage people of other faiths.

The third misunderstanding of civility is that civility will lead to a false tolerance. “If we respect people’s right to believe, we accept all what they say and we’ll have an indifference to moral differences and we will just be tolerant in a very sloppy sense.” No, the right to believe anything does not mean that anything anyone believes is right. The right to believe anything is freedom of conscience. And if you think of hell, the doctrine of hell means that God respects our rights. In Roger Williams’ terms, He doesn’t rape our conscience to make us bow to Him. The right to believe anything is absolute.

But that in no way means that we accept everything that anyone believes as right. Instead, it means that if we think that they are muddle-headed or morally confused or that they have a position which is profoundly socially evil, we engage with them respecting their right to believe what they believe but exercising our responsibility to disagree with them persuasively and hopefully civilly.

Step six : face up the requirements for an effective resolution of this issue

The establishment of human rights is still controversial in many parts of the world. But if you look at the success of human rights, and of course here again, as with the European Union, many of the architects were people of faith in Christ like Charles Malik. We can see that where human rights has been successful, it is only so where there’s a three step movement, none of which by itself will affect things. 

First, there has to be a declaration of principles. And I personally would like to see Europe, or Christians in Europe pressing for a declaration of freedom of conscience for all citizens. But that is only the beacon.

The second step with human rights, which came many times fifteen to twenty-five years later, is the legal implementation of the framework which protects that beacon of rights. 

But the third step is actually the crucial one too, and that is civic education. It used to be clearly understood that in free societies, everybody is born free but not everyone is worthy of freedom. And to make people equal to their duties and virtues of freedom, they needed to be educated for liberty, liberal education, civic education or what Alexis de Tocqueville calls the habits of the heart. 

A while back the Americans thought they would be applying this, but the bitterness, the polarization and the gridlock in America are very profound and in many ways they are destroying their own best heritage, so at the moment I don’t see America taking the lead on these things. Europe, in my view, is floundering. With all the challenges with immigration and so on, each country tended to fall back in the default position of its historical past: the French, their strict laïcité; the British and the Dutch, tolerant, espousing quickly state multiculturalism. And you can see how disastrous it has been.

But if Europe truly is to look to the future, and raise the question of how Europe can live with these deep differences, maximizing religious liberty, freedom of conscience, freedom itself for all the European citizens, we will have to re-examine these default positions which are the legacy of the past, because they are inadequate. And we will have to really ask ourselves what vision of European future can lead us forward. And I believe it will be a vision of such a civil public square that we Christians should be in the forefront of arguing for it, not just for ourselves, and not just for all other citizens and the common good in Europe. But if one part of the world were to establish this well, eventually it would be a beacon to the entire world.

Dr. Os Guinness

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