Religious Liberty

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Those who follow Jesus Christ and seek to embody his gracious presence in our broken world have profound reasons to take a keen interest in the issue of religious liberty, which is the principle ‘that all human beings ought to be immune from coercion whether by individuals or social groups and by every kind of human power, so that in religious matters no-one is compelled to act against his or her conscience or impeded from acting according to his or her conscience, whether acting publicly or privately, alone or in association with others, within due limits’ (Declaration on Religious Liberty [Dignitatis Humanae], Second Vatican Council, 1965).

Why should Christians take an interest in religious liberty? First, the very notion of religious liberty is a special gift of the Christian faith to the world, rooted in the Scriptures and first clearly articulated in history by church fathers as ancient as Tertullian and Lactantius in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Second, religious freedom is at the heart of the gospel. In drawing his bride, the church, to himself, Christ our bridegroom does not compel or coerce but invites and woos human beings into a nuptial relationship of love and interpersonal communion. Christian commitment to religious liberty is therefore not merely instrumental—as a means of clearing the way for evangelistic proclamation, for example—but reflects the deepest Christian convictions about the character of God in Christ and the kind of personal relationship he seeks with human beings made in his image.

Third, religious liberty is a matter of basic, non-negotiable justice. Human beings, Christian or otherwise, who do not enjoy religious freedom suffer profound damage to their God-given dignity, basic human rights, and access to the greatest good imaginable—free and uncoerced communion with the living God.

There is no contradiction between being willing personally to suffer the abuse or loss of our own rights for the sake of Christ, and being committed to advocate and speak up for those who are voiceless under the violation of their human rights. We must also distinguish between advocating the rights of people of other faiths and endorsing the truth of their beliefs. We can defend the freedom of others to believe and practise their religion without accepting that religion as true. The Cape Town Commitment II-C-6

Fourth, the actual state of religious liberty in our world is an abomination that cries to heaven. In its most recent study on the subject, the non-partisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life concluded that 75 percent of the world’s people live in countries with severe restrictions on religious freedom (which represented a deterioration of five percent from only the previous year). Yet this worsening crisis, now afflicting even Western countries, receives little attention by governments, the media, the academic community, and, sadly, even most churches.

The Lausanne Religious Liberty issue network is only in the earliest stages of construction. In the next two to five years, the priority is to build collaborative partnerships with other important Christian movements and institutions dedicated to the global promotion of religious liberty, including the Religious Liberty Partnership, the World Evangelical Alliance, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Vatican, the Anglican Communion, Saddleback Church, and the Institute for Global Engagement.

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