Freedom of Conscience
Balancing Secularism With the Right to Worship
By Ted N. C. Wilson
On Sabbath, April 28, 2012, thousands of Seventh-day Adventists and guests were blessed as church leaders and the youth of the Dominican Union led out in the third annual Festival of Religious Liberty in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. During the past year Adventist youth and young adults eagerly prepared a well-crafted program featuring biblical scenes from Genesis to the New Testament church—all emphasizing religious liberty.
Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are gifts from God—gifts centered in free choice. These gifts are important for everyone in the world, and they are integral to our sharing the good news of the ultimate gift of Jesus Himself.
Religious Freedom in a Secular Society
Just days before the festival in Santo Domingo, I joined nearly 800 others at the seventh International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) Congress in Punta Cana, where government officials, religious leaders, and guests from around the world gathered to discuss and promote a better understanding of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the context of a secular society. In a world in which certain regions are growing increasingly secular, challenges to religious liberty are multiplying.
Seventh-day Adventists have always embraced religious liberty as an integral part of their beliefs, history, and mission. Religious liberty is in the very DNA of our church. Because we find the imperative of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the Bible, we feel very close to the believers who stood for religious freedom during centuries of religious restrictions and persecution.
Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom—a basic human right.1 It preserves an appropriate focus on personal, individual opportunities, yet it is also good for the well-being of societies and countries. Wherever it is honored and protected, justice, peace, and cultural progress inevitably increase.
But more than this, religious liberty and freedom of conscience have biblical foundations. Freedom of conscience is a gift from God, our Creator and Savior. He created us with the freedom to choose (see Gen. 2:16, 17). It’s an important part of our human dignity. It was an expression of God’s great love, and there’s no true love without the freedom to love.
The Signature of God
Religious freedom bears the signature of a God of love, and plays an integral part in the great conflict between God and Satan, between good and evil. In the heart of the book of Revelation—Revelation 13 and 14—evil powers are described as oppressing, persecuting, and killing those who refuse to worship them (Rev. 13:14-17). In contrast, the people of God proclaim their faith in Jesus—but they don’t force anyone to worship Him. Christians have always testified to Jesus as the truth. But no one should ever be forced to accept that testimony. Jesus never imposed His teachings by using His power. Even His closest disciples were free to leave Him (John 6:67).
Jesus prepared His disciples to face persecution, but He never allowed them to persecute others, or to take revenge. Instead He told them, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matt. 10:23, NIV).2 Instead of using violence, Jesus asked His disciples to love their enemies, a practice proclaimed again in 1 Corinthians 4:12, 13: “Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat.”
An Approach to Secularism
The world’s movement toward secularism is a process—a neutral, pragmatic, moderate secularism today could become an ideologically aggressive and coercive power tomorrow. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all moderate secularisms today will become extreme tomorrow, but it reminds us that history amply illustrates this trend.
It’s helpful to remember that in many Western countries secularism has been a reaction to the domination of religion for centuries. This has been the case in Europe, as well as in Australia and North and South America in differing degrees. In these places secularism has been progressing from a moderate stance toward a more radical form. When it reaches the level of national government and is invested by political power, it often leads, step by step, to the exclusion of religion from public affairs.
This process, however, is not universal. In some parts of the world efforts to impose a secularized model of society and government have failed, and dramatically so. This is also a reaction—not against religion, but against the process of secularization.
Extreme secularism is not irreversible. When it uses the power of the state to fulfill its antireligious agenda, it produces reactions for people of faith. Examples of aggressive secularism include the forced removal of historic religious artifacts from public squares; imposing the practice of abortion on religious institutions, even when that practice goes against the conscience of practitioners; and decertifying Christian adoption agencies if they don’t list same-sex couples as possible parents. Secularism doesn’t target only Christianity, but other faiths as well. A much-reported act in France requires Muslims attending state schools either to remove their Islamic hijabs or to pay to attend private schools.
In these and other instances the secular state is no longer religiously neutral but has acted in favor of an extreme ideological secularism that does not respect religious freedom.
A Religious or Aggressively Secular State?
Some believers who feel threatened by secularism are tempted to establish a religious state, or at least one more friendly toward their religion. History has shown us that the usual first step toward that goal is a religious/political party that works to gather public consensus for a religious government.
Again, we can learn a lot from the past. Over the centuries religion formed the center of human societies. It was the reference point for everything—science, art, philosophy, politics, economy. But as we know, the society it inspired was not a model of religious freedom.
If the state gives to one religion a privileged legal position, no genuine civil equality is possible. Life becomes a nightmare for those who believe or practice differently. For example, which type of society would condemn a citizen to death for apostasy because they have changed religions—a secularized or religious society? Such outright violations of human rights are unfortunately completely legal in some nations, and are even included in their constitutions or penal codes.
As members of a religious minority, Seventh-day Adventists should be alert when religious movements in their societies embrace political methods. History has shown the disastrous effects on religious freedom when church and state become united.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36); no country on earth can claim to be the “kingdom of God.” At its best, any human government will be an imperfect attempt to establish peace by protecting the freedom and rights of all. But roots of persecution are planted when the state is made sacred. When it becomes “godlike,” it betrays its purpose.
A Fundamental Freedom
If asked to choose between a religious state and an extreme secular state, I could not choose either one. We have seen religious freedom denied by both. My choice must always be for a state where religious freedom is described as a fundamental freedom and has the status of a protected human right.
A secular state can be supported by believers so long as it doesn’t oppose the values of their faith. Christians are called to obey authorities and to respect the state. But when there is a conflict between the faith of Jesus and the claims of the state, we have a higher mandate: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, KJV).
Most of what we call “secular societies” are still open spaces where people holding different opinions can express their points of view. This “open space” produces tensions, and in such a context those who say nothing risk having nothing to say.
As we face the question of how to live in a context of secularism (with all its tensions) and still be faithful to our Christian values and beliefs, we have to accept this tension between secularism and religion as part of a free society. We must accept the challenges and find appropriate responses through God’s leading.
Tension Brings Opportunities
As tensions arise there will be opportunities to share our faith and values. If intolerant, ideological secularism attacks our religious faith, we must stand up for our faith with conviction. We should not be intimidated or give up. But we must face the challenge with the Christian weapons of hope, endurance, perseverance, kindness, and love.
Let’s be fully engaged in our strong commitment and personal actions to live lives that promote religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Let’s speak and advocate our positions in a winsome manner with grace, conviction, and passion. Let’s seek wisdom from heaven to accomplish the great task of championing religious freedom, enlisting support from government and civic leaders, as well as the general public.
Let’s especially encourage youth and young adults to join in constant vigilance and action for religious liberty and freedom of conscience for everyone. It’s our God-given gift, and it’s our great privilege to receive and share it.
1See “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Even ostensibly secular organizations have recognized and enshrined this right.
2Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.