Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Where Human Rights Begin

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The freedoms of religion and speech are first among those individual rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and they are also protected in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.  Those fundamental freedoms originated in the natural law of the 18th century Enlightenment, and their nemeses are religious laws that prohibit apostasy and blasphemy.

            The Enlightenment transformed politics and religion in libertarian democracies with the progressive ideals of democracy and human rights, but not in Islamic cultures.  Indonesia, once considered a bellwether of human rights among Islamic nations, recently convicted a prominent politician of blasphemy.  In Pakistan, there is growing public support to enforce blasphemy laws, and in Turkey and Egypt the freedom of speech has been denied to stifle political opposition. 

            Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who championed religious freedom and “the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in America.  As a slaveholder Jefferson was a hypocrite in advocating liberty, but his advocacy of religious freedom illustrated its political priority in the U.S. and its uneasy relationship with religion.
            Before the Bill of Rights provided the freedoms of religion and speech, blasphemy laws were enforced in colonial America; and today authoritarian leaders and terrorists in Islamic cultures use apostasy and blasphemy laws to stifle political opposition.  The freedoms of religion and speech can thus be a means of U.S. national security to counter radical Islamist terrorism.
            While there is too little religious freedom in Islamic nations, there may be too much religious freedom in the U.S.  Christian fundamentalists have demonstrated their political power by electing Donald Trump, and President Trump supports their claim that their right to exercise their religious freedom allows them to ignore laws that conflict with their religious beliefs.

            Individual rights are essential to provide liberty in law, but those rights must be balanced with providing for the common good.  In America, individual rights have been emphasized at the expense of providing for the common good, while in Islamic nations those priorities are reversed.  Finding a balance between those two purposes of government is a challenge for any democracy.

            Human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, must be at the foundation of the rule of law to prevent political oppression.  Even in a democracy there can be a tyranny of the majority if minorities are denied human rights; and history has shown that a religious tyranny can be even more oppressive than a secular one.
            Religious laws that preclude human rights are instruments of political oppression.  That is the case when apostasy and blasphemy laws deny the freedoms of religion and speech and when the freedom of religion allows unlawful discrimination.  The freedoms of religion and speech are fundamental human rights, but should never be used to deny others the equal protection of law.   

            Religion is part of the problem so that it should be part of the solution.  The greatest commandment to love God and love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  It is based on reason and shared values that oppose religious fundamentalism and political oppression.

            Human rights begin with the freedoms of religion and speech, and since we love those freedoms we should share them with others as a matter of our faith and politics.  There can be no liberty in law without the freedoms of religion and speech, but the friction between individual rights, religion and politics will continue to challenge democracies until apostasy and blasphemy laws are eliminated and the limits of religious freedom are better defined.
Notes and references to related commentary:

On a Christian governor in Indonesia found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to prison, see; see also, Indonesia president calls for respect of governor blasphemy verdict, at; see also, The Guardian view on blasphemy in Indonesia: exploiting religion for political purposes at

The Pew Research Center has confirmed the prevalence of apostasy and blasphemy laws throughout Islamic cultures in the Middle East and Africa, and that they are being enforced.  See

On Jefferson’s role in promoting the freedoms of religion and speech and libertarian concepts of human rights as standards of legitimacy in the context of conflicting religious beliefs, see the Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, pages 10-15, posted in Resources at

On the new French president having similar views on religious liberty as those of Thomas Jefferson, see Emmanuel Macron has a history buff’s view of Islam and religious strife at

The Qur’an provides: Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear
from Error. Whoever rejects Evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy
hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things. (Qur’an, Al Baqara
2:256)  But whenever Shari’a prohibits apostasy (abandoning religion or conversion to another religion) or blasphemy (any speech or act disrespectful of God), there is compulsion in religion.

On the diversity of opinions among Muslim scholars on human rights under Shari’a, see Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, at pages 9-16, posted as a Resource at

The Executive Summary of the International Freedom of Religion Report for 2015 (released on August 8, 2016) is at

On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see

On moral restraints on the freedom of speech, see

On balancing individual rights with providing for the common good, see

On how religious fundamentalism and secularism shape politics and human rights, see

On the freedom of religion and providing for the common good, see

On the freedom of religion and speech: essentials of liberty in law, see

On liberty in law: a matter of man’s law, not God’s law, see

On the evolution of religion and politics from oppression to freedom, see

On religion and a politics of reconciliation based on shared values, see

See voices of reason and hope in the cacophony over religion, human rights and politics at

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