By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The relationship between religion and freedom has always been strained, perhaps because religions emphasize submission to God’s will, while freedom opposes submission with free will. We love our freedom, and the greatest commandment calls us to share that freedom with others; yet the Bible and Qur’an include laws against apostasy and blasphemy that deny the freedoms of religion and speech, and those oppressive laws are enforced in Islamic nations today.
Mustafa Akyol recently made a presentation in Malaysia on apostasy from Islam and was detained by religious police for his “unauthorized” talk on religious freedom. He was ultimately allowed to return to the U.S., but the experience deeply disturbed Akyol, who has advocated the compatibility of the Qur’an with the freedoms of religion and expression. After speaking truth to power on that topic, Akyol was confronted by worldly powers that sought to refute that truth.
Akyol’s experience illustrates conflicting standards of legitimacy in religious and secular law. Secular law is based on the sovereignty of man over God in politics, but the sovereignty of God was the norm until the Enlightenment debunked the divine right to rule with the libertarian concepts of democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law. That was in the West. In the East, Islamic Law (Shariah) continues to prevail over secular law and denies religious freedom.
The West has its own problems with the freedom of religion, but it’s a matter of too much rather than too little freedom. Fundamentalist Christians assert that their free exercise of religion allows them to discriminate against homosexuals as sinners, even though secular law prohibits such discrimination. No freedom is absolute, and the freedom of religion cannot justify denying others the equal protection of secular law.
There is no place in a libertarian democracy for religious law, but that does not negate God’s moral supremacy over secular law. Even so, asserting that supremacy can be costly. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for violating immoral separate but equal Jim Crow laws in the South. His peaceful civil disobedience demonstrated that going to jail can be worth the price to assert God’s moral supremacy over the political supremacy of man’s secular law.
There is a strong correlation between religion, freedom and justice in a stable democracy. Populist demagogues like President Trump in America, Erdogan in Turkey, El Sissi in Egypt and Duterte in the Philippines have fostered anger, division and chaos to stifle their opposition and promote their power. Erdogan and El Sissi have used apostasy and blasphemy laws to stifle their opposition, while Trump has appealed to racial and religious bias to motivate his constituency.
Justice in democracy requires laws and institutions that balance individual rights with providing for the common good. President Trump thrives on conflict and chaos, and has challenged the integrity of the FBI and the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections to discredit their investigations and undermine their legitimacy, in order to create a political vacuum that Trump can fill.
In both religion and politics, God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. The problem is that Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the church and in politics. Over the years populist demagogues and religious charlatans have confirmed that ugly truth to promote their power.
The freedoms of religion and speech are essential for a politics of reconciliation that can save democracy from divisiveness and chaos. That reconciliation should be based on the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims that can reconcile us and prevent the demise of our democracy.
At a seminar on Religion and Rights: Strengthening Common Ground on February 16, 2018, Rudelmar Bueno de Fario, ACT Alliance General Secretary, spoke on the need to find common ground between faith and the human rights that protect political freedoms: “Often, people of faith speak about love, generosity, and compassion and not so much about legal frameworks, entitlements, duty bearers and rights holders. But what does 'love' mean when it is not related to justice? And what does justice mean when it is not related to legal frameworks?” See https://reliefweb.int/report/world/religion-and-rights-seminar-strengthening-common-ground.
On the importance of religious freedom to Jews, Christians and Muslims—even to atheists—see
Rev. Neal Jones, a Unitarian Universalist pastor who heads the board of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has said: “In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve experienced such an overall assault on the freedom of religion and conscience as I have since the election of Donald Trump. It seems the ploy by the religious right these days is to use ‘freedom of religion’ as an excuse to violate people’s civil rights.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/21/for-the-first-time-a-woman-and-non-christian-will-lead-this-group-that-thinks-gove.
Mustafa Akyol recounted his unhappy experience with religious police in Malaysia following his presentation on the subject of apostasy from Islam: “I argued that Muslims must uphold freedom of conscience, in line with the Quranic dictum ‘No compulsion in religion.’ I said that apostasy should not be punished by death, as it is in Saudi Arabia, or with ‘rehabilitation,’ as it is in Malaysia. The practice of Islam must be on the basis of freedom, not coercion, and governments shouldn’t police religion or morality. It turns out all you have to do is speak of the police and they will appear. …This incident showed me once again that there is a major problem in Islam today: a passion to impose religion, rather than merely proposing it, a mind-set that most Christians left behind at the time of the Inquisition.” See
Mustafa Akyol has asked, Does religion make people moral? and then pointed out that religious conservatives (Islamists) in Turkey have “come to dominate virtually all institutions of the state, as well as the media and even much of the business sector. In short, they have become the new ruling elite. …The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything they once condemned as unjust and cruel.” They “have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.
Soner Cagaptay has confirmed that Erdogan is rapidly moving Turkey from its secular past to an Islamist future with the elimination of civil liberties and the arrest of those who “insult Islam.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2018/02/16/in-long-secular-turkey-sharia-is-gradually-taking-over/?utm_term=.3fdae5fca6a4&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1.
Mustafa Akyol has affirmed the relevance of the teachings of Jesus to Islam, noting that Jesus “called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. …He also taught that outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/opinion/what-jesus-can-teach-todays-muslims.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2FMustafa%20Akyol&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection®ion=Marginalia&src=me&version=column&pgtype=article.
On February 18, 2018, Donald Trump tweeted: If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America! The irony is that Trump thrives on conflict and is aiding and abetting Putin by creating discord, disruption and chaos in America. Quinta Jurecic has confirmed that “Trump is presiding over a great destabilization in American life, and his attacks on institutions are a key aspect of this.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/institutions-cant-save-america-from-trump/2018/02/16/3fb9e5e0-100f-11e8-8ea1-c1d91fcec3fe_story.html?und.
Max Boot has noted that “The evidence of Russian meddling [in the 2016 election] became ‘incontrovertible,’ in the word of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations on Friday for taking part in this operation. …Yet in a disturbing weekend tweetstorm, President Trump attacked the FBI, Democrats, even McMaster — anyone but the Russians. He sought to minimize the impact of the Kremlin’s intrusion, tweeting: ‘The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!’ Actually, there’s plenty of evidence of collusion, including the infamous June 2016 meeting that Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign manager held with Russian representatives who promised to ‘incriminate’ Hillary Clinton.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-ignoring-the-worst-attack-on-america-since-911/2018/02/18/5ad888f2-14f3-11e8-8b08-027a6ccb3.
Related commentary on religion, freedom and legitimacy:
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/22/15): Religion and Human Rights
(3/15/15): The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church
(3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security
(5/17/15): Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech
(6/14/15): Jesus Meets Muhammad Today
(6/21/15): Christians Meet Muslims Today
(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
(7/12/15): Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/07/reconciliation-in-race-and-religion.html
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/16/15): How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/08/how-religious-fundamentalism-and.html
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(9/13/15): Accommodating Religious Freedom under the Secular Rule of Law
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(12/12/15): The Power of Freedom over Fear
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(3/12/16): Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(9/24/16): The Evolution of Religion and Politics from Oppression to Freedom
(10/22/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in a Polarized Democracy
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(5/13/17): Voices of Reason and Hope in the Cacophony over Religion, Human Rights and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/05/voices-of-reason-and-hope-in-cacophony.html
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/14/17): In the Midst of an Islamic Reformation http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/in-midst-of-islamic-reformation.html.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics