Exposing the global misappropriation of religious freedom and its ties with authoritarianism
The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty. This is especially evident with respect to religious liberty. It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right. — Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
James E. Wood Jr wrote an article entitled, “A Biblical View of Religious Liberty” for The Ecumenical Review published in January 1978. In it he writes that “religious liberty is biblically rooted in man’s nature and in his inalienable right to respond freely to God’s revelation. To express it another way, religious liberty is based not only upon the rights of God, but also upon the rights of man.” Wood makes such a claim based on the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution that declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is this belief in the notion of a person’s right to exercise and engage their understanding of God that foregrounds all other freedoms including, but not limited to: the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the freedom of protest.
The Morning News
However, it appears as though freedom of religion, now known as “religious liberty”, has taken on a new expression in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. This morning The New York Times reported that Governors and mayors in 48 states are taking measures to restrict citizens as coronavirus cases rise. Cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have already put stay-at-home orders into effect today, and states like New Mexico and North Dakota are issuing statewide, two-week lockdowns. Such measures are growing increasingly more difficult across the country as the holidays roll around. Jane Brody writes that in spite of the fact that COVID-19 spreads quicker in colder, drier climates, people are still planning to break quarantine for the holidays due to “coronavirus fatigue.”
This exhaustion with the pandemic and the social restrictions attached are causing people to become quite lax with the various health precautions we’ve been advised to adhere to. Dr. Anthony Fauci projects that such carelessness could lead to potentially 200,000 more deaths by spring. Now, what’s frustrating and disappointing about it all, is that much of the American unwillingness to comply with these social restrictions is attached to a belief in ones personal liberties, particularly religious liberty.
Religious Liberty in the News
Adam Liptik reports, “in recent months, churches in California and Nevada asked the Supreme Court to lift government restrictions on attendance at religious services meant to address the coronavirus pandemic. The churches lost.” He uses this as contextual information for the latest request which came on Thursday, November 12th from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Even as the pandemic is worsening, more and more communities of faith are seeking legal recourse to combat the social distancing restrictions put in place by the government.
This opposition from religious leadership towards the social distancing orders of local and federal governments is not limited to our American shores. In fact, the Indonesian Islamic leader Rizieq Shihab returned to the country from Saudi Arabia attracting large crowds. Amongst some of his activities, Shihab held his daughter’s wedding on Saturday with an estimated 10,000 guests. While he was fined about $3,500, reports say such a fine was minuscule in comparison to his personal estate. Such actions were contrary to a statement issued by Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo. He declared, “I want to emphasize that the safety of the people is the highest law. During this pandemic we have decided on social restrictions, including the dispersal of crowds.”
In spite of such a statement The New York Times reports that Shihad “said he planned to travel around Indonesia promoting his ideas of strict adherence to Islam.” As cases in Indonesia continue to rise, with the highest death cases on record in East Asia, health experts say “that Indonesia’s testing is too limited and that it is missing far more cases of the virus than it finds.” In other words, this spiritual leader is so adamant about spreading the message of “strict adherence to Islam” that he is willing to aid in the spreading of coronavirus COVID-19 and the potential deaths of thousands, some who will be counted and others who won’t.
Christian Nationalism and American Discomfort
What is it about the social distancing and stay-at-home orders that cause religious leaders frustration? Why are they so adamant about breaking or petitioning these laws created for public safety? While I can’t speak for such international countries as Indonesia, I can certainly attest that the feeling on American soil is that her citizens do not like being told what to do. A country rooted in personal liberties and the notion that one can do as they please based on the dictates of their own conscience, America, even in the midst of a global pandemic, continues to struggle with the idea of living a socially restricted life as dictated by the government. Such a reality smells too much like “socialism” or “communism” and so they work to reject it all costs. In many minds these social restrictions are a breech of democracy at its very core.
Katherine Stewart in her article “Trump or No Trump, Religious Authoritarianism is Here to Stay” suggests that many Republicans are attempting to protect this breech of democracy through Christian nationalism. She writes that Christian nationalism is “the idea that the United States is and ought to be a Christian nation governed under a reactionary understanding of Christian values.” While other movements start at the grassroots level, Stewart posits that Christian nationalism “operates mostly from the top down.” She reports that the dissatisfaction with the Biden-Harris win is deeply rooted in this demographics discomfort with the legislation of their understanding of immorality. For example, she includes a quote from the conservative speaker and Falkirk Center fellow David Harris, Jr who said,
If you’re a believer, and you believe God appointed Donald J. Trump to run this county, to lead this country, and you believe as I do that he will be re-elected the President of the United States, then friends, you’ve got to guard your heart, you’ve got to guard your peace. Right now we are at war.
These sentiments along with the belief that this election is a result of “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion” expresses the deep seated connection of the Republican Party to the new social movement of Christian nationalism.
The Truth About Religious Liberty
This movement is intent on presenting their agenda as that of the protection of “religious liberty”, but is, according to Stewart, simply a strategy to “make individuals see their partisan vote as the primary way to protect their cultural and religious identity.” In other words, what various religious leaders are projecting as religious liberty and a protection of the freedom of religion is in actuality an attempt at maintaining political control and protecting their cultural and religious identity.
In this sense, any religious organization seeking legal recourse to resist and reverse stay-at-home orders for the purpose of “religious liberty”; any religious leader endangering thousands by promoting large gatherings for the purpose of worship and spreading a religious message; or any religious movement explicitly aligning itself with one political party and rejecting the central characteristic of Democracy in its belief in a peaceful transition of power, is not advocating “religious liberty” or the freedom of religion, but is actually advocating a more sinister agenda rooted in the exercise of religious authoritarianism.
Religious Liberty in The Bible
This led me to reflect, is “religious liberty” or the notion of the freedom of religion in the Bible? While the terms themselves are not present, what I found in the New Testament was interesting. In the Gospel of John the author opens with a statement on the divinity of Jesus and gives a preface for all his dealings with humanity that would be further explored in the book. In verse 12 of the first chapter of John the writer records, “But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name.” I take this to mean that anyone who believes that Jesus Christ is God John asserts they have not just rights with God in heaven, but they also have the right to worship Him on Earth. Whether those rights are legally respected in one’s particular country does not eliminate the fact that for John any person that declares Jesus Christ is God is by right a child of God.
But what about those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is God? Do they have rights that protect their religious beliefs also? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” In essence, at the very center of the Judeo-Christian God’s being is that of freedom of choice. All of humanity has the right to choose or not to choose God. Therefore, any expression of Christianity that seeks to force all persons to accept Jesus Christ as God ministers outside of the scope and example given in the Bible.
While enforced Christianity has been the global historical practice, the personhood of God has not been in favor of it. From the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem of Revelation, The Bible reveals that the Judeo-Christian God is intent on creating space for humanity to choose who they believe is God, and how they will worship that God. This is the true heart of religious liberty and the freedom of religion. It is the idea that all men have the right to exercise their understanding of spirituality and faith to the God of their choosing under the dictates of their own conscious. And this space of choice, while deeply uncomfortable for Christians, is at the heart of the character of their God. The God of the Bible that I read is one that desires that Jesus’s character be revealed in the actions and speech of His believers so persuasively that any who do not believe choose to believe because they are attracted to the lifestyle, character, and service of His believers. Not by the legislated or culturally coerced enactments of religious leaders.
In this time of great and global turmoil, may our hope and faith always encourage us to prioritize the safety and health of people regardless of their faith, beliefs and practices. May our choices in worship, recreational gatherings, holiday travels, and even our political appointments be a reflection of the care and protection that we desire for all people. For until our Christianity ceases its attempts at controlling the world and instead truly seeks to serve it, our Christianity will continue to be a strategy for political control instead of Earthly stewardship.