For Liberals, Religious Freedom Means Freedom from Religion

As the presidential campaign came to a close, religious questions sneaked surreptitiously into the national debate.  The Democrats had an easy target: Governor Romney’s unusual religious affiliation, though since few Democrats know anything about any religion, particularly Christianity, they found it difficult to distinguish Mormonism from other not quite so strange semi-Christian sects.  Watching national commentators fumbling for words, I was reminded of the media reaction to Jimmy Carter’s declaration that he was a born-again Christian.  The national dailies and weeklies actually had to run major stories explaining what the phrase meant.

Some Evangelicals responded by changing their position on the LDS.  The people who run Billy Graham’s website “Mormonism” went so far as to remove Mormonism from a list of cults.  Since the best defense is a good offense, the Republican Christianists went on the attack, excoriating President Obama and his Party for subtly shifting their advocacy of religious freedom to a defense of “freedom of worship,” a phrase that has been kicking around the dusty corridors of professional religiosity for some time.

Freedom of religion, as we have all heard in sermons and editorials, goes beyond the right to assemble and worship in the proverbial “church of your choice.” Religious freedom is the right to live out the life prescribed by religion: to wear religious garb and symbols, preaching the faith in public, doing all such good works that the faithful have been instructed to perform.

Alarmists can point to the shifting rhetoric of rights as enunciated by the UN Secretary General.

In connection with Freedom of Worship, there is also the ambiguity of the UN Secretary General’s recent remarks on the freedom of expression which is absolute–so long as you offend no one (except Christians).

All human beings have the inalienable right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. These are very fundamental rights. But, at the same time, this freedom of expression should not be abused by individuals. Freedom of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose. When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way. So, my position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act.

So it is the rulers of states and (in the Secretary General’s imagination) the world, who get to decide what we are free to say and how we are free to worship.

The Deseret News—owned and controlled by the LDS organization—weighed in:  “But worshiping within a sanctuary constitutes just one facet of a living faith. Religious institutions and believers realize their vocations most fully when engaged in ministering to the sick, caring for the poor, counseling the poor in spirit, educating the rising generation and promoting integrity in society.”

This all sounds rather nice, but (as I explained in a recent column) when Christianists try to turn it into an ultimate creed, they run afoul of religions that persecute other religions or engage in disagreeable acts.  Christianists then fall back on the position that freedom of religion is to be permitted except where exercise of that freedom conflicts with longstanding moral and legal traditions, such as prohibitions on murder, or even with more recent revelations on the rights of women, children, and brute beasts.

As an aside, let me point out the obvious flaw:  None of the great monotheisms, compared with Greco-Roman or Egyptian paganism, has much of a track record on tolerance and religious freedom.  The Romans did cracked down on the Druids, both for human sacrifice and for their agitation against imperial government, and they sporadically persecuted Christians, mostly for their alleged misanthropy and lack of patriotism.  However, the Greeks and Romans did not care what you believed, so long as you paid lip service to the religion of the city or of the empire.

Religious freedom may well be the prudent thing for Christians of this age, but it was non-Christian liberals like Mr. Jefferson who promoted the idea of toleration of dissent.  “Error of opinion,” he intoned in his inaugural address, “may be tolerated where freedom is left to combat it.”  Note, by the way, that Jefferson used the word may as opposed to must. He was not so foolish as to declare an absolute freedom of opinion and expression.

President Jefferson was, of course, speaking of political opinions, but he would have cheerfully applied the same rule to religion, if only because he was largely indifferent to all religions.  His family, friends, and neighbors were all—to one extent or another—Christians, mostly Anglicans, and he had no quarrel with a superstition (as he certainly regarded Trinitarian Christianity) that taught kindness, charity, thrift, and personal responsibility.

When liberal deists, agnostics, and atheists declare themselves in favor of religious freedom, there is no paradox or anomaly, because toleration of diversity is a liberal but not a Christian virtue.  As a postmodern man living in a postChristian world, I freely acknowledge the practical advantages of religious freedom, but as a Christian I am not naïve enough to believe that this doctrine was taught by Christ and his Apostles or by the great doctors of the Church.  Nor do we find it in the great reformers—Calvin was as an enthusiastic a persecutor as Torquemada.

Freedom of religion, then, is the creed of the anti-Christian liberal tradition that has always wanted to stick Christianity in a box that can be put safely away in some Lost Articles depot.  When they are more honest, anti-Christians speak openly of “freedom from religion,” which is the real meaning of the campaign for religious tolerance.

This column first appeared October 19, 2012 on the Daily Mail (London) website and is reprinted with permission.

Thomas Fleming


Thomas Fleming is editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of several books on ethics (The Morality of Everyday Life) and politics (Socialism, The Politics of Human Nature). In an earlier life he received a Ph.D. in classics and taught Greek and Latin at several universities.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I rather fancy “freedom of worship” is a translation (and not a very happy one) of « La Liberté des Cultes » a phrase that figured prominently in the French Enlightenment.

    The expression is rather equivocal. « Le culte » means adoration or worship; it also means religion, particularly, but not exclusively, in the sense of denomination (« Le culte juif » = the Jewish religion; « un ministre d’un culte » = minister of religion) It does not have the pejorative overtones of the English word “cult,” for which the French equivalent is « La secte. »

    Originally used to signify opposition to the legal monopoly of the Catholic Church – “freedom of denominations” – nowadays it means “‘the independence of the political authorities and of the different spiritual or religious persuasions [« options » in the French] This signifies an absence of political intervention in religious matters and an absence of religious sway over political authority.” This is also known as laïcité.

  • Mike Detchemendy

    It’s the Jeffersonian Bible – a cut and paste of two of Jefferson’s Bibles, meant to be distributed to the heathen Indians, and was in fact.

  • Brian

    Are Christians supposed to attack religious freedom, attack people who believe differently, impose confessional government, and purge dissent by any and all means? Is that the message? What happens to human dignity when religious freedom disappears? Hasn’t Mother Church grown over the centuries and come to see human dignity? What happens to Christians living in communist and Islamist regimes? Doesn’t rejection of religious freedom logically lead to persecution? Doesn’t your article confirm the accusations that the Church stomps on humans?

    Oh, and when I clicked on one of the links, I noticed that he attacked Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Is Crisis Magazine mainstreaming attacks on civil rights leaders and people who actually opposed slavery? This sort of things really frightens me. I swear that Crisis Magazine is contributing to an epic anti-Catholic backlash that will make the sex-abuse scandal look like two house-cats tussling. I’ve often considered giving up posting on sites like this, but then I continue to feel the need to ask tough questions and sound the alarm bell.

    I really do pray for Mother Church to be renewed and healed so that she can credibly witness to the Gospel. Things like this give me terrible discouragement. How will humans see Jesus if they see theocratic tyranny instead?

    • Brian

      I should have said “…seem to confirm…”

    • Augustus

      How Ironic. You lament that some Crisis contributors seek to “purge dissent” yet you demand that the views expressed in the magazine conform to your particular world view–which, I might add, compliments the prejudicial stereotypes promoted by anti-Catholic bigots. Rather than lecturing Crisis readers, why don’t you open your mind to alternative ways of looking at fundamental questions instead of simply demanding that we mimic the spirit of the age?

      • Brian

        I never said that we should copy the “spirit of the age.” I mean to raise tough questions. I mean to point out that the “spirit of the age” has redeeming qualities. Look at the abolition of slavery. Look at allowing races to live together. Look at allowing women to share in public life. Look at the vigorous opposition to the likes of the Taliban. And so on and so forth.

        Looking at fundamental questions? That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do. I have been trying to find truth wherever it is found. The reason why I have been posting comments that “compliment the prejudicial stereotypes promoted by anti-Catholic bigots” is that I take the “bigotry” seriously. Do not Christians have a duty to show the Gospel of life and love? Does not that duty become grave when they become so vocal?

        I will bow out of this thread–I think I’ve said what I could say.

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  • J G

    Actually if you go back to the beginning the Church did believe in freedom of religion and asked for it from the Roman emperor. Constantine permitted religious liberty, although he was a supporter of Christianity. So a case can be made, although I agree that the current view is indeed a smokescreen for intolerance and ultimately persecution of Christians.

    Edict of Milan: “When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus,
    fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering
    everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we
    thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many,
    those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought
    certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and
    others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred;
    whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be
    propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our

    • Brian

      That does help convince me that Constantine did in fact lay the groundwork for religious freedom, though we still must wonder if the Church became too wrapped up in the power structure by being the state religion, especially in the Byzantine Empire.

      • J G

        We must remember that the concept of something other then state religion is relatively recent. History must always be read in context. State religion is not necessarily a bad thing. For example the Church did tolerate other faiths even in the Papal States. I think we are still working these things out, but currently the real threat is that religious liberty in the Obama sense of it will be used ironically to reduce the freedom to practice Catholicism. Tony Esolen reminds us that everyone is bound to follow divine truth, liberty must not become mere license.

  • I believe there is a wide field between the hostile pose of indifferentism on the one hand, and confessional requirements for public office on the other. A judicious look at history should show this. The bishops need to stop claiming religious liberty merely, and start championing the rights of the truth, starting with moral truth. In any case, without Christianity, Western civilization is a rotting corpse …

  • msmischief

    People should really read Maccabees prior to declaiming on Greek religious freedom. You will notice, right off, that what those Jews suffered was new. They weren’t just conquered, as they had been conquered before. They were religiously persecuted as part of a concerted effort to make the religious practices uniform.

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  • Prof_Override

    Ignore the paranoid rantings of Mr. Fleming
    Yes – Freedom of Religion means Freedom from Religion also, the 2 are inseparable, you can’t have one without the other. This isn’t a bad or evil thing – get over it. If you have the winning hand, play it and quit complaining about the other side legitimately playing their cards. You either have faith in your position or you don’t – it’s that easy.