Freedom of religion is a biblical concept

Threat to religious freedom

1. Perspectives

1.1 Religion and freedom - a historical tension

(Robert Leicht)

To put it in a nutshell in advance and at the same time to outline the actual topic unequivocally: First of all, religious freedom does not belong to the conditions of the possibility of religion - but it does belong to the conditions of freedom. Even more sharply, secondly: Freedom cannot suppress religion - but religion can suppress freedom, at least in some varieties of religion.

The truth of the first sentence is already evident in the immediate present; we only need to think of the Christians in Iraq, Turkey or the People's Republic of China. This first sentence also gains its evidence in our immediate German, double past - looking back on the Nazi era as well as looking back on the SED dictatorship. And this first sentence could - hypothetically - catch up with us and our children's children again: Are we Christians only on the condition that we are free as citizens? So religion is not a consequence of political freedom. The question is rather: Is freedom a consequence of a properly understood religion - or has it historically asserted itself without, yes: against religion, also against the Christian religion? for the time being?

The statement that religion can very well suppress freedom has been confirmed many times over the course of history, including the history of the Christian church. The Christian churches have not always been heralds of political freedom, and certainly not always advocates of religious freedom. Today, of course - and that in the longue durée In history, it has not been for a long time - the Christian churches stand up for religious freedom. The legitimate question is: why only now? The much more important question: why now? It could be that the Christian churches only realized with their loss of importance how much they - displaced from the dominant sociological position and co-dominant political role and put on the defensive - are dependent on a freedom that they like theirs religious competitors, their agnostic critics and atheistic opponents alike.

And even on the defensive there are still major strategic differences: The protection of individual religious freedom (i.e. the freedom of the individual to religion as - supposedly - "private matter") can also be designed in such a way that collective religious freedom (i.e. the Freedom of the churches for institutional activity in public space) is being neglected, little by little. By no means all European states know - like German constitutional law - not only individual but also collective religious freedom. And it has by no means been decided whether, at the end of the road to a European constitution, collective religious freedom will become a European common good or whether it will only be preserved as a moderately protected special property of individual states, in the sense of a (weak) acquis. Freedom as such, that is how it remains, cannot be suppressed by religion. A misunderstood freedom, of course, this warning correction of the second sentence is appropriate, can jeopardize the correctly understood religious freedom. And therefore both must be clarified: the question of how the state religious freedom is to be understood correctly, as well as the question of why and for what reasons the churches must campaign for comprehensive religious freedom - pragmatically also in their own interest, but also far more theologically out.

The emergence of religious freedom in Germany

First, a brief, rough look back at the German development towards religious freedom: The history of the relationship between state and church in central Europe was certainly controversial until the Reformation. At best, this had to do with conflicting (power) claims of the two institutions, but in no way with any freedom of religion, and certainly not with religious freedom of the subjects; not even the "church-critical" secular rulers would ever be on the expressed thought of a life outside of the corpus christianum came. It was about conflicts within Christianity, not against Christianity, and certainly not in favor of other religions. Only with the post-Reformation juxtaposition and opposition of denominations does the question of - no: not the (Christian) religion, but - the denomination in the state arise for the first time. The Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555 cuius regio, eius religio establishes the coexistence of rulers of different denominations, but requires the denomination of the subjects to agree with that of the ruler, but at least grants the "deviants" a temporary right to emigrate. If the ruler changes denominations, the subject has to change too - so to speak: religious freedom for rulers, religious freedom for no one. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 uncouples any change of denomination of the ruler from the denomination status of his subjects; So they now have the right to remain true to their denomination.

The age of enlightened absolutism - and the amalgamation of different denominational areas under one rule, including the denominational differentiation of Protestantism within one and the same territory - leads to certain loosening and a certain plurality of denominations within a state: “The religions must all be rioted and the Fiscal (the state, RL) has to keep an eye on the fact that none of the other disruptions occur, which here (in Prussia! RL) everyone has to be self-sufficient according to his own style, "said Frederick the Great. But it already shows here that this “tolerance” does not follow ecclesiastical impulses, but out of state interest, this becomes even clearer in another dictum of the “Old Fritzen”: “As far as the hymn books are concerned, everyone is free to sing : 'Now all forests are at rest' or such stupid and foolish stuff anymore. But the priests do not have to forget tolerance, because they will not be allowed to be persecuted. ”That means: At the cradle of religious freedom and tolerance, religious cynicism is the first godfather, not the religiously intended freedom of those who think differently. And even in this Prussia, the followers of non-established Christian communities were excluded from the right to public worship and were relegated to religious practice at home. Only the third successor of Frederick the Great, the Prussian King Frederick William IV, will allow a personal “change of denomination” to lead to non-denomination. Until then, man was just as conceivable as a citizen, but as a citizen of the state and church at the same time; Jews fell out of this identity, unless they had been “appointed” in individual cases as (limited) privileged Jews, although then still not as “full” citizens.

The Paulskirche constitution, although never valid and strong, in 1849 at least granted the "full freedom of belief and conscience" and abolished all restrictions on the "common domestic and public practice of religion". It gives the churches the right to organize and manage their affairs independently, allows the formation of new religious societies and states: “Furthermore, there is no state church.” But it was only with the Weimar Constitution that all of this became valid constitutional law. Of course, the seat of religious freedom remains a regulatory element of the relationship between state and church even in the Weimar Constitution. It was not until the Basic Law of 1949 that religious freedom emerged from this “corporatist relationship” and became an independent fundamental right of the person, in addition to which the “state church law” articles from the Weimar constitution continued in a strange, conceptually not entirely tension-free historical compromise.

This time-lapse sketch of a history excerpt was necessary because it also shows one thing: Nowhere in this process are the churches as institutions, and certainly not their governing bodies, in the avant-garde. The Roman Catholic Church will not even accept freedom of religion and freedom of conscience positively until the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Even the established German Protestantism, which until 1919 was represented and domesticated in its predominant territories, the corporatist level of state church law was more important than the individual religious freedom of every Christian and enemy of the church in order to safeguard its interests. Certainly only a selective example of this aftereffect: In 1961 the representative, then completely evangelical encyclopedia “Religion in Past and Present” in its third edition offers a highly succinct article on religious freedom in which, without any historical information, precisely the Legal situation according to the Basic Law is reproduced almost at a distance, also with sentences like this: "Modern constitutions guarantee freedom of religion in many cases in the sense of a general freedom of belief, which not only protects a Christian creed, but also anti-religious beliefs (such as Art. 4 I GG) . ”It is more likely that there are proactive statements on religious freedom in ecumenism, for example a sentence that was adopted by the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala in 1968:“ The full application of religious freedom to individuals and organizations and free justice for all People, regardless of belief and which worldview, to follow one's own conscience, are of fundamental importance for all human freedoms. ”Of course, the problem of religious lack of freedom is also more evident in the vastness of ecumenism.

Bent belief is unbelief

But now, beyond historical criticism, the question to be asked of the churches is not so much: How do you feel about religious freedom? Rather: What are the reasons for your now seemingly uncomplicated affirmation? First of all, one can say that the churches have finally made their peace with the seriously interpreted individualism. Even if the term individualism with a certain anti-liberal undertone is reminiscent of polemical front positions of the past, the same thing is actually said with the term human dignity, a little more positively, a little more solemnly - also with pathos a little less clear. In this term, insights from both political and theological anthropology converge: Each individual person has a core of inviolable dignity which, although in fact can be violated, but its essence cannot be destroyed. This core of human dignity is absolutely prior to everything in every single person - not just every state (and church!) Regulation, even the necessity or even the possibility of the person concerned to earn this dignity only through their own performance. Freedom of conscience is an essential part of this human dignity - not because the individual's conscience would be infallible, but because the conscience's ability to err is an inevitable expression of its freedom. Only those who are free to decide can develop a conscience at all and then make right and wrong decisions. And only a free decision for the right thing is a right decision. Freedom of conscience is also the prerequisite for real religion. Only a completely free answer to God's encouragement and demand is a true answer. The freedom of this answer can certainly be politically curtailed, even suppressed - but whoever stays with his religion despite state persecution proves that he gave his religious answer of his own free will, in contradiction to the obviously prevailing bondage. State pressure, including religious repression, can only move conscience away from true religion, but never bend it towards it. Because faith that is bent is unbelief.

This is the last, inevitable reason why the churches must also unreservedly affirm the positive religious freedom of those of different faiths and also the negative religious freedom of unbelievers and - wherever possible - actively support them. On the other hand, it would be far too short if the churches were to support religious freedom for the sole purpose of one thing do ut des enter, as it were in the sense of a "reciprocity clause": I grant you religious freedom so that (and if) you grant me the same. "Consequently, the churches in the Federal Republic cannot do anything else than to stand up for the religious freedom of Muslims themselves, when Islamic states do not practice religious freedom for Christians. This asymmetry also legitimizes their advocacy of religious freedom everywhere - as I said: not as a pragmatic, customary advance payment, but as a basic requirement.

Certainly there are also limits to religious freedom, namely where the practice of a certain “religion” is itself at the expense of the freedom of third parties and at the expense of the human dignity of its followers; however, these limits can arise solely from the human and fundamental rights of those affected. But above all: These limits then apply indiscriminately to all religions. So there can be no privileges for certain religions - neither positively in the exercise of them, nor negatively in the constitutional barriers to religious freedom.

Once again - and to the resolution: The churches now finally and for all time now have not only good, but irrevocable reasons to stand up for comprehensive religious freedom. But should it cause historical calamity differently and should religious freedom either not be granted or revoked again, the Christian community has just as strong, just as irrevocable reasons for remaining true to its faith. Martyrdom, too, is a sign of freedom - against bondage, even though it should not be talked about willfully. The martyr will say - and only he can say it: always to be preferred to bondage.

Robert Leicht is a member of the Synod and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. He is president of the Evangelical Academy in Berlin and political correspondent for “Die Zeit”.

1.2 The ecumenical contribution

(Dwain C. Epps)

Those who first articulated the right to freedom of religion and conscience were shaped by the bitter experiences of European Protestants during the Reformation and the religious wars that followed.

Entire communities were displaced at the time and many emigrated to North America in search of religious, political, social, cultural and economic freedom. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 recalls the “circumstances of our emigration” and declares to the British Crown: “We consider these truths to be evident that all human beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to these the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belongs. ”The first amendment to the American Constitution in 1791 stipulated that“ Congress must not make any law that recognizes the establishment of a religion or restricts the free practice of religion. ”This natural law Approach to human rights and the understanding that there should be "a wall of separation" between religion and state, as Thomas Jefferson put it, determined thinking about freedom of religion and human rights.

The Protestant Missionary Movement

The missionary spread of Protestantism in the 19th century, often closely linked to colonial conquests, inevitably led to confrontations with the predominant indigenous religions, but also with the mostly Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian churches that were already established in these countries. It is therefore not surprising that the first ecumenical formulations of a right to religious freedom occurred in the context of the missionary movement.

The subject was discussed at the first world missions conference in Edinburgh in 1910, and in 1928 the International Mission Council adopted the first substantive declaration on freedom of conscience and religion.What is remarkable is the unusually inclusive way in which followers of non-Christian religions are addressed and, together with the churches, called upon to “hold fast to belief in the invisible and eternal in the face of growing materialism in the world; to work with us against all the evils of secularism; to respect freedom of conscience so that people can confess Christ without separation from family and friends; and to perceive that everything good that people have ever imagined is fulfilled and protected in Jesus Christ. "

Experiences under inhuman regimes

The ecumenical conference in Oxford in 1937 on the subject of church, state and community, bearing in mind the situation in Germany and the Soviet Union, raised the cry: “Let the church be the church!” It expanded the declaration of 1928 by listing several conditions for the church can fulfill their obligations to society:
  • the right to public and private worship, preaching and teaching,

  • freedom from state requirements for liturgy and religious ceremonies,

  • the freedom of the church to determine its own leadership and to determine the qualifications of its officials and members,

  • the freedom of the individual to join the Church,

  • the right to monitor the training of their officials and to give religious instruction to young people,

  • freedom to do social service and missionary activity at home and abroad,

  • the freedom to collaborate with other churches and

  • the freedom to use generally available public funds to achieve these goals.

Freedom of religion as a fundamental international right

After the Oxford Conference, churches in Great Britain and the USA formulated proposals on behalf of the ecumenical movement to anchor the idea of ​​religious freedom in international law. In doing so, they also incorporated the famous "four freedoms" that Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed in 1941. One of them is called: "The freedom of every person to worship God in their own way - anywhere in the world." The proposals were submitted to the governments in the run-up to the establishment of the United Nations (UN).

A commission set up by the Federal Council of Churches in the USA drew up a document in 1942 with the title “Six Pillars of Peace”, which set out the basic conditions for a just peace from a Christian point of view and significantly influenced the political considerations for a post-war order under the Allied powers . It describes universal human rights including "the unrestricted right of the individual to religious and intellectual freedom" as a prerequisite for lasting peace.

Dr. O. Frederick Nolde attended the San Francisco conference in 1945, at which the United Nations Charter was drawn up and adopted, as an advisor to the US delegation on behalf of the churches. With his help, the proposals of the churches were almost completely adopted. A preamble expressed the determination of the peoples "to reaffirm the belief in the fundamental rights of man, in the dignity and worth of the human personality, in the equality of men and women and in all nations, large and small". An article was included with which the United Nations set itself the goal of “establishing international cooperation in order to (...) promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all regardless of race, sex, language or religion and to consolidate".

Another notable improvement in the charter, which was supported by the churches, was the addition of a passage establishing a permanent consultative instrument between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. With a view to this possibility, the International Mission Council and the Provisional Committee of the World Council of Churches established a “Standing Commission of Churches on International Affairs” (CCIA) to represent the churches at the United Nations. Dr. Nolde was named its first director. One of the first tasks of this commission was to endeavor to draw up and adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including freedom of religion.

The first assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam in 1948 adopted a declaration on religious freedom at the request of the CCIA. She formulated the broad consensus of the member churches:

  • Everyone has the right to determine their own belief and creed.

  • Everyone has the right to express their religious convictions in worship, in teaching and in practical life and to speak openly of the consequences of these for relationships in the social or political community.

  • Everyone has the right to associate with others and to form a common organization with them for religious purposes.

  • Any religious organization that is formed or maintained according to the rights of the individual has the right to determine its own principles and practice in the service of the ends for which it has chosen.

This statement turned out to be very influential. Dr. Nolde immediately took them to Paris, where the United Nations General Assembly discussed the draft for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the basis of the Amsterdam Declaration, Dr. Nolde drafted an article on religious freedom that was adopted and remains fundamental to international law and its application to this day, namely Article 18.

End of colonialism and freedom of religion as a collective right

Until then, human rights had always been viewed from the perspective of the West, starting with the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights. When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Covenants on Civil, Political, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966, which was intended to give legal effect to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a wider dichotomy opened up between those who favor individual rights and those who wanted to start from collective rights. This rift between the West and the East grew and turned the subject of human rights into a minefield in the ideological conflict of the Cold War.

In the same year the Ecumenical Conference for Church and Society met in Geneva. Representatives of the churches from the Third World wanted to radically change the predominantly North Atlantic character of the World Council in order to give the post-colonial world more status and to give more weight to the new, actually global membership. The assembly in Uppsala in 1968 took up these demands and opened the door for radical changes in the ecumenical understanding of human rights and religious freedom. "The full application of religious freedom to individuals and organizations and the free right for all people, regardless of belief and worldview, to follow their own conscience, is of fundamental importance for all human freedoms," says the resolution of the General Assembly. She called on the churches to "make it clear to their congregations that in the modern global community the rights of the individual are inevitably linked to the struggle for a better standard of living for the socially disadvantaged in all peoples."

These ideas became the basis for a new ecumenical understanding of human rights that was formulated at the fifth assembly of the WCC in Nairobi in 1975.