Religious Freedom

"What do you mean," I am often asked, "by religious freedom?" Here is how I answer.

First, by religious freedom I mean the freedom to practice our faith in peace. This is the freedom that is protected by international law and in many instances by the laws of our nations. Without this legal protection, minorities may be oppressed by the majority population or by their government.

Therefore, I support the fundamental human right of religious freedom and work to secure this right for all people. This requires that governments use their police power, if necessary, to protect the rights of all their religious communities to worship and support their traditions. This is the legal meaning of religious freedom.

Second, by religious freedom I mean freedom within religious communities. I do not embrace all beliefs or practices that are described as "religious," but only those which respect the fundamental human rights of persons. That is, I see religious freedom as one of the social conditions necessary for human dignity, a right that cannot be separated from other fundamental human rights. Therefore, I urge religious communities to respect the freedom of their members, even as they expect other communities to respect their freedom.

Of course, this does not mean that I am opposed to membership requirements or to religious discipline voluntarily undertaken by members of religious communities. Nor does it mean that I expect all religious communities to be egalitarian in their decision-making. It does mean, however, that religious communities are not free to ignore the fundamental human rights of their members, even when these members are voluntary participants. Beliefs that denigrate other human beings, because of their race or sex or culture or religious convictions, should not go unchallenged, and practices based on these beliefs may need to be prohibited by law. This is the ethical meaning of religious freedom.

Third, by religious freedom I mean the search together for truth. To affirm religious freedom is to admit that we are often wrong, that we learn from one another, that we are challenged by different beliefs and practices to reflect on our own traditions—and sometimes to change them. To affirm religious freedom is not to defend our present understanding as the truth, but to confess that we come closer to the truth by opening ourselves to the experience and understanding of others.

This is why I support interfaith programs promoting understanding and cooperation. By talking and sharing in prayer and meditation with people of other faith traditions, we broaden our experience of religious life. We open ourselves to learn more about other traditions but also about ourselves, for there is much to learn by noticing how we react to the religious faith of others. This is the spiritual meaning of religious freedom.

These three aspects of religious freedom—the legal, the ethical and the spiritual—are all essential. To work only for the legal protection of religious freedom would mean to ignore injustice within religious communities and to fail to admit that the truth often eludes us, even as we struggle to do what is right. To be concerned only with freedom within religious communities, without being concerned about the rights of other communities and without admitting our own tendency to err, would be self-righteous and would cut us off from the truth that we seek to realize. To pursue the truth, without standing up for the right of others to pursue the truth in their own ways, as religious communities and individually within those communities, would be to reduce freedom to privileged piety.

Therefore, I affirm religious freedom as a legal, ethical and spiritual quest. None of us, either individually or in our religious communities, can rightfully claim that we are the model for all others to follow. We all fall short of our highest aspirations, and we all have much to learn. Perhaps together, in humility, we may realize more fully the visions of truth and justice in our traditions of faith.

January 1993 © Robert Traer 2016