Do You Really Believe in Freedom of Religion?

John ArmstrongIslam

A 24-year old Assyrian Christian woman, who is a citizen of Iran, wasMecca
recently rejected for a job as a flight attendant with Air Iran, the state-run airline. What was the reason for her rejection? She had not read the Koran. Her comment about her rejection underscores a major point that I believe is true with regard to all religion in public society. “Religion without the freedom to reject it is not a true religion. It makes life very claustrophobic.”

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Christianity has not always recognized this principle clearly, given the history of certain events that followed the conversion of Constantine and the millennium long developments of European Christendom. Christendom plainly had long periods where there was little or no freedom in European states that allowed a person to openly “reject” the Christian faith without real personal and social consequences.

But there is a fundamental difference here between Christianity and Islam. The teaching of Jesus makes it explicitly clear that faith cannot, or should not, be coerced. We are all invited to freely choose to follow Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We can also freely walk away from his claims. There is no conception in the New Testament of a government that can require, or should induce with societal incentives, conformity to the teachings of Christ. Christian faith, in its essence, is a faith that promotes real liberty. This is why the West has evolved, after numerous wars of religion and false Christian practices, into a context where governments (generally) protect freedom in the area of religious faith and practice. This is true in most liberal democratic nations, with America having been the real leader in this area for well over two centuries.

In Islamic cultures, especially where the overwhelming majority of the people practice Islam and the government is built upon it, this is not the case. Inside_mosque_2
The Koran says that “there is no compulsion in religion” but issues of religious freedom still cling to Islamic cultures like super-glue. Can Islam change? Some scholars think so. I surely hope so. I embrace these reformers and pray they will have a greater impact upon Islamic cultures in the coming years. I think it is good for Christians and governments to encourage such reformation in a proper way, that is without coercion. 

Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and the former vice president of Iran says: “If you force religion down people’s throats, it makes them less religious, not more.” He maintains this is why so many young people in Iran are turning away from practicing an active faith in the teachings of the Koran.

Freedom of religion is the right of a person to form personal religious beliefs according to his or her own conscience and to give public expression to these beliefs in worship and teaching, restricted only by the requirements of public order. Religious liberty differs from toleration in that toleration presupposes preferential treatment of a particular creed by the state because it is an established church or, in some cases, is the predominant religion of the population. Some Muslim countries practice a form of toleration, at best, but there is little if any freedom of religion, except perhaps in a place like Turkey. (Even here pressure is mounting against the secular state from the Islamic Right.)

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I think healthy Christianity never needs the state to support it in any sense. In the best case scenario the state should stay out of religious matters that involve the choice of citizens to practice their beliefs. The government should allow the market to solve the problem, to borrow an apt economic metaphor. This is one reason why religion flourishes in America where people can make up their own minds about what they will believe, or not believe, without state interference. Many Christians, both liberal and conservative, have forgotten this basic truth and by seeking to wrongly establish one religion as the state’s choice they have thereby violated the great principle of true liberty in religion. In the end the Christian faith will thrive best where we allow people to hear the claims of Christ accurately presented and then see what a Christian community really looks like in action. This is what mission is all about, not creating Christian states who seek to force faith, or religious decrees, on anyone.