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Friday, May 19, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Religious Freedom, Limited

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Independent reports that Belgium’s Walloon region is the latest territory to ban kosher and halal meats. Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand all got there first, in each case turning a deaf ear to the protests of Jewish and Islamic minorities.

Tom: That’s fine with me. We’ve already established in the U.S. and Canada that there are reasonable limits on religious freedoms, though these have been applied more frequently (and certainly more visibly) against Christians than against religious minorities recently.

But this is the nature of multicultural societies. Wherever different religions have coexisted in the same national space, some limits on specific practices have always had to be set. Where blasphemy was concerned, the Jews groused to Pilate that “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” Too bad, so sad. That’s life in the Roman Empire.

Where did the West get this concept of “freedom of religion” in the first place, IC?

A New National Value

Immanuel Can: I would say that freedom of religion was pretty much an unpracticed, if not unknown, idea in Europe before the 19th century. Even after that, powerful institutional churches linked up with the government enjoyed widespread privilege over dissenting beliefs. The Middle East, the Far East and Africa ... well, you can see there was no such idea as religious freedom; and in most such places, there is none today. But in 18th century Revolutionary America with its wide-open frontier, we start to see a new thing ... freedom of religion as a national value. Too many dissenters, and no way of corralling them all. So to pull them all together, you needed to guarantee their freedom.

But the philosophical theory used to explain the reasons for freedom of religion hails from John Locke. It is Locke who explains rationally why (from a distinctly Protestant perspective) freedom of religion is natural and inevitable for all people. And that was what the U.S. used.

Tom: If you look at American history, as you say, the promotion of religious freedom as a national value was really intended to curb infighting between different groups of Christians. The Spanish wiped out a Huguenot colony in Florida in 1564 because “they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.” This sort of thing went on for 200+ years.

It wasn’t until James Madison’s essay “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” that it would be proposed that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every ... man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”

Constitutional Freedom 

This concept became encoded into the American Constitution with the First Amendment in 1791. The original idea was to keep the State out of the Church and from interfering with the individual conscience. Today, that has been magically inverted into a right of the State to keep the Church out of its affairs.

But even after religious freedom became an American value there were still limits at the state level. Missouri expelled Mormons as recently as 1838. New York State banned Catholics from public office until 1806 and in Delaware, public office required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. In Maryland, Jews did not have full civil rights until well into the 1800s.

Short version: Even in exceptionally tolerant America there have always been some limits on religious freedom, and that was true back when every single one of the religious groups being managed by the various states had its roots in either the Old or New Testaments. And we’re long past that today.

From Mormon to Muslim

IC: Well, and Canada’s facing the problem now, on a number of fronts. For example, there’s the polygamous, traditional-Mormon group at Bountiful. Can “freedom of religion” include the right of powerful old men to marry multiple women, some as young as 14, if your “religion” requires or allows that? And it is okay if you eject your colony’s consequent ‘surplus’ young men in order to do so? So far, Canada can’t even seem to decide it’s alright to cap that.

Tom: Let’s not forget honor killing and female genital mutilation. Not legit in North America, but they’re certainly happening at least on a small scale already. Muslims are unlikely to get those legalized until they have the numbers to impose Sharia, or until they establish no-go zones like they have in Europe where they simply practice whatever they please and the authorities turn a blind eye rather than risk a major insurgency.

But like other so-called “rights” guaranteed to us by paper constitutions and charters, freedom of religion is largely meaningless once you grant it to more than one religion. My State-guaranteed freedom to practice what I believe will inevitably offend Muslims, and at a certain point their State-guaranteed freedom to practice their religion will eventually offend me even if I am the most tolerant soul going.

The Clash of Value Systems

IC: Well, what’s tolerance? I think I wrote a piece on that. It’s when somebody DOES offend you, but you agree to allow them their liberty to continue. But “tolerance” only matters if you believe a couple of things Islam denies: firstly, that people are all valuable, and secondly, that obeying one’s conscience before God is the first essential duty of every person. If you believe those things, you have to allow religious freedom. And if you don’t believe those things, you don’t even imagine you have to give anyone that right.

Tom: This is why “religious freedom for all religions” doesn’t work. Two groups with clashing value systems can’t possibly be happy at the same time, so the net effect is that the most aggressive religions retain their freedoms, while the more peaceful ones have theirs stripped. An example: Justin Trudeau wants to protect Muslims from hate speech, so he’s going to limit my freedom of speech to do it. Meanwhile, Muslim imams are free to say anything hateful they like about Jews and Israel. But it’s way easier to manage Christians who generally obey State authority than to manage religions that will not cooperate, so that’s the way the game is played.

It’s just interesting to see that Belgium and a few other countries are bucking that trend.

Reversing the “Coexistence” Narrative

IC: What did you have in mind about Belgium, Tom?

Tom: I think it’s part of a growing trend that reverses the “coexistence” narrative we’ve been force-fed since Muslim immigration became a thing. The Walloons said to their Muslims (and their Jews, for that matter) in effect, “We know you have certain things you have traditionally been doing in preparing your meat, and we know they’re part of your religion, but — and here’s the brand new bit — you can’t do that here.” So the Muslims pushed back like usual, and the Jews pushed back and used the magic word “Holocaust” … and then the Walloons went right ahead and passed the ban all the same.

There’s a certain cultural confidence showing there that hasn’t been seen in the West for a while.

Now of course it’s distinctly possible this may not be a good thing for Christians, because, you know, What’s sauce for the goose …

Private Matter or No Matter

IC: Yes, quite. I worry about the prevalence of that word, “religion”. The word is old, but the way it’s used today is actually very new. According to historian Peter Harrison, the modern way of speaking — that there’s a whole alphabet’s worth of “religions” from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, and Christianity is only one — only dates from the early modern period. But since that time, we’ve been increasingly indoctrinated to believe that that collective noun describes some kind of reality, and that Christianity is “among” other “religions”. It’s a secular term, really one that is used today to be dismissive. “That’s your religion” means, “Go away; whatever you say may appear true to you, but it has no claim on me … I’m of a different ‘religion’, or perhaps of none at all, and ‘religion’ is a private matter — if it matters at all!”

Tom: Right. In the West religion is looked at more as a hobby than any sort of real belief system or life-changing worldview. The idea that what you believe would alter the way you behave in any fundamental way is not well understood at all. And that not only misunderstands genuine Christianity in a major way, it also misunderstands the intensity with which Islamists approach their religion. For them it’s not a hobby. It’s their politics, their identity, their culture … the whole nine yards.

IC: Another such term today is “fundamentalism”. It’s supposed to describe something, but like “religion” it’s meaningless without saying what the belief in question is. Quakers, Hassidim and Jihadis are all said to be “fundamentalists”, but vive la difference! So when “religion” is restricted, we can fully expect that not just “fundamental” Islam but Judaism and Christianity will get hit soon after.

Not Gonna Play Anymore

But this is perhaps different, Tom. I think the Walloons are just saying “We’re not playing Islam’s game.” I suspect the kosher Jews just got caught in that battle, because they never presented a problem to Belgium before.

Tom: No, and there’s a much smaller number of them these days. The few that have not taken flight for America or Israel are deeply deluded about their own level of influence on European politics, and convinced that if they cry “Anti-Semitism!” a sufficient numbers of times, things will eventually go back to normal, which of course is what they’ve done here. But Europe is 70 years removed from the end of WWII, and mentioning the Holocaust doesn’t have the same effect on Millennials as it had on the Boomers and Gen X.

And I don’t see this as a particularly anti-Semitic move by Belgium. As you say, they were happy to let the Jews do their thing for years. But with the increasing number of Muslims in the country and with the heightened sensitivity in secular society to animal cruelty, this wasn’t going to be a win for either the Muslims or the Jews.

IC: No. But what will it mean for Christians? Will other localities follow Belgium’s example? It’s hard to see, given the Islamic influx, that they won’t all be forced to lay down some basic rules. But when they do, what will be the spill-over effect for Christians and Jews? I suspect there will be one, because the liberal myth of the equal value of all religions will forbid the making of any intelligent distinction, and of clamping down exclusively on Muslims. So religions that have never been a problem before will be hurt by that.

But what’s the Christian thing to do here, Tom?

Between God and Men

Tom: Well, obedience to the civic authorities is our rule of thumb wherever possible and principled, restrained disobedience where it isn’t. I mean, things like a ban on gathering in the name of the Lord or a ban on witnessing are worth fighting for and we really have no other option. I may be wrong, but I don’t see that in the immediate future. More likely it’s going to be the kind of things we’re already seeing now: the obligation to bake cakes for gay weddings; the danger of losing your job if you’re too vocal about your faith during work hours; that type of thing.

IC: That’s good counsel. But I also think that the clampdown may continue beyond the reasonable and moral; and that there will soon come a time when we will have to say, with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men.” Discerning exactly when we reach that point will be a major challenge for the Church in upcoming days, I suspect.

Maybe what we have to do is set that point very clearly and firmly right now. At what point will it become right and Christian to obey God at the cost of defying our government? It will be easier to decide now; but since decline is gradual, it may be very hard to believe the time has come when it comes.

Come it will.

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