Religious Freedom: The First Human Right

Address to the Yakunin Hearing, a conference held by Christian Solidarity International on “The Significance of Martyrdom for the Life of the Church,” parallel to the Sixth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

23 July 1983, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


When Church historians of the late 21st century look back upon our times, how will they characterize them? Some will undoubtedly portray the 20th century as the age of ecumenism, which is surely a gift of God and a sign of the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our age. Intellectual historians may well note that ours has been a century of great theological creativity, perhaps fit to rank with such other great theological centuries of the Church as the 16th, the 13th, and the 5th. Historians of Christian spirituality will note the renaissance of the evangelical spirit, the reformation of the Roman Catholic liturgy, the outpouring of books on prayer in an age that fancies itself “secularized.”

So our fellow Christians of the future will not lack for material with which to draw pictures of this extraordinary age of the Church in which we live. But their portraits will be radically — indeed scandalously — incomplete if they do not take note of the fact that this 20th century of ours is preeminently the age of the Persecuted Church, an age of martyrs.  Statistically, there can be no argument about this; more Christians, across a wider span of the globe, encompassing a greater ethnic and racial pluralism than ever before, have been harassed, discriminated against, arrested, shackled, tortured, shot, hung, worked to death, dehumanized with mind-altering drugs, stabbed, gassed, and starved — than in any other comparable period in Christian history. Nero and Diocletian have found their peers in today’s persecutors: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, the bureaucrats and military technicians of dozens of tyrannical regimes. We are living in fact in a great age of martyrdom. How often do we reflect upon this, we who live in a zone of religious freedom? What does this martyrdom mean for the Church? What does it mean for the wider community of humanity, as it struggles to achieve peace and freedom, security and liberty and a de-cent standard of living? What are the responsibilities of the free to those in chains? What are the claims of the martyred dead upon the living?

In thinking about and praying over these questions, we should always remember that Christians are not the only persecuted religious believers of this blood-stained age. As we meet tonight, Baha’is are being murdered in Iran for their faith. Our brothers and sisters in the abiding Covenant with Abraham, the Jews, are under extreme sanction in the Soviet Union, even as their political enemies obscenely equate Zionism with racism. The One God Who is Father of us all surely wishes us to stand in solidarity with all of those who are persecuted for the sake of His Name, even if they call that Name by different forms than we.

Nor should we forget that there is a brighter side to this grim picture. For the first time in human history, there are international legal agreements acknowledging the right of liberty of conscience: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. It is tragically true that these agreements are more honored in the breech than in the observance; but in fact that even today’s tyrants and persecutors feel compelled to give at least lip service to the ideas of liberty of conscience and religious freedom indicates that something new and important has entered human self-consciousness: persecution of others on the basis of religious belief stands outside the pale of civilized behavior. Believers may see in this development a mark of the work of the Spirit in an age of martyrdom.

But our focus here in the Yakunin Hearing is not on how far we have come, but on the even greater distance we have left to travel. Well may we celebrate the spirit of ecumenism that tonight brings a Catholic theologian into common work with an evangelical Reformed pastor; but we are met to consider the plight of those denied even the most elementary of religious rights: to pray, to worship, to teach and catechize, to serve the poor and bind up the wounded in the name of Christ our Lord. So we leave the good news in the background, grateful to God for it, but knowing that what has been accomplished only sets the terms of our responsibility for what still remains to be done.

Tonight, I wish to think and pray with you about religious freedom as the first of human rights. The issue of religious freedom or, more broadly, liberty of conscience — has importance far beyond our own concerns for the persecuted Church (even as those concerns of ours illustrate, in a poignantly graphic way, the perils of inattention to persecution and oppression wherever it arises). Still, we come at the question of religious freedom and human rights as believing Christians. So I would first like to talk to you about the Biblical and theological basis of religious freedom. Then, I would like to talk about religious freedom as the most basic of human rights, indeed the cornerstone of any meaningful structure of human rights. Finally, I would like to reflect briefly on religious faith, and the religious affirmation of human rights, as an antidote to that despair over the human future which we can sense insinuating itself throughout the Western world.



Religious freedom, freedom of faith, and liberty of conscience from political coercion are rooted, fundamentally, in that dignity of the human person which is ours by reason of our creation by God. The God who “created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) thereby endowed human beings with a transcendent moral worth that cannot be abridged, or even challenged, by any human power. Even so rational a philosopher as Immanuel Kant (who was, of course, influenced by Lutheran Pietism) saw this clearly: human beings are to be treated as ends in themselves, never as means to others’ purposes, and especially their political or power purposes. Pope John XXIII, in his great encyclical Pacem in Terris, affirmed that this dignity of the human person is known not only through the revealed word of God, but can also be known by human reason itself. This latter affirmation — that the right of liberty of conscience or religious freedom can be known by reason itself — is important on two grounds. First, it suggests that religious freedom, both as freedom from coercion and freedom for faith, for God, is a fundamental element in the stuff of being human. It is not “added on” to the humanity of our persons from “outside:” it is an essential component, an inviolable constituent element, of what it means to be a human being. Second, Pope John’s affirmation of the “reasonableness” of religious freedom means that, in principle, everyone can understand that liberty of conscience and freedom for God are basic, inviolable human rights. According to the Pope’s teaching (which was re-affirmed by the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration Dignitatis Humanae Personis, “On Religious Liberty”), the persecutors cannot claim that religious freedom is a “bourgeois luxury” rooted in the sociology of class; they cannot claim that liberty of conscience is a quaint, culturally-conditioned notion of limited applicability in other environments; they cannot claim that freedom for God is a self-interested assertion of believers. No, the “reasonableness” of religious liberty means that the persecutors must make a conscious choice against the exercise of this fundamental dimension of human personhood. One need not accept the revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor in the Gospel of Christ, to be bound by an obligation to honor religious liberty. Religious liberty is built into the very structure of human being-in-the-world. Because it can be known, those who refuse to know it — or, knowing it, refuse to honor it — are guilty not only of crimes against individual believers, but against humanity itself, against human nature.

What is it that the persecutors find so threatening about freedom of faith? Some of the answers are obvious. Freedom of faith is a challenge to oppressive political power, because it acknowledges the authority of Another. But this is not the only, or even the most fundamental, reason why belief threatens the tyrants. To affirm the intrinsic dignity of each individual human being is to acknowledge, even implicitly, that human being-in-the-world is bounded by a Truth fuller than ourselves. To affirm the dignity of each individual human being is to affirm that each of us has a Whence, from which we have come, and a Whither, to which we are called in fidelity. The Whence and Whither of our existence is fuller, more complete, greater than we; in the language of philosophy, it transcends us. But since, as believers, we claim that our intrinsic human dignity is rooted in our creatureliness, that means that we are touched by transcendence in a radical way: we are, by our very nature, oriented toward that fuller Truth which bounds the created order. We are called by that Truth to communion with it. We are, in this sense, what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner calls capax infiniti, “capable of the infinite,” or “radically open to transcendence.” It is a remarkable statement to make about human beings. It is our great glory, and the source of our religious and moral obligations.

But it is also that which strikes fear and hatred into the hearts of persecutors and tyrants. In all ages, but preeminently in our own, where the new tyranny of totalitarianism is such a salient contemporary political fact, tyrants most fear and hate those men and women who insist on their own personal integrity, on their own personhood. The essence of tyranny is the reduction of human beings to the status of means, to mere instruments for others’ purposes. Any claim that affirms the transcendent capacity of human being is a radical (in the Latin sense of radix, “root”) challenge to tyranny. Faith threatens tyranny because it radically denies the tyrant power over that which he or she most wants to mold and shape: human personhood, human personality. To affirm freedom of faith as an expression of the intrinsic dignity of the individual human being is to shout to the world, “I choose, because I am a human being; they cannot make me choose!” Freedom of faith is a “two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) aimed straight into that heart of darkness which is persecution, oppression, tyranny, the abuse of persons. That is why the tyrants tremble before freedom of faith. That is why they shackle the believers, and those unbelievers who defend believers’ rights. The challenge that liberty of conscience poses to tyrants is the most fundamental challenge possible. It is the final de-legitimation of tyranny. That is why tyrants wish to crush it. That is why we must guard its flame. For in doing so, we are confessing the reality of God, Who is our fuller Truth, the Whither of our lives, the source and goal of our liberty of conscience, our freedom for faith.



To affirm religious freedom is thus to make a basic statement about the nature of man, the fundamentals of humanity. But the implications of liberty of conscience, freedom of faith, go far beyond philosophical questions of the human person; they have crucial importance for the ordering of our common life in society as well.

Human beings form communities — religious com-munities, voluntary associations, even nation-states — around common values. In the development of human political community in the Western world (in other words, in the slow march towards democracy) these values came to be understood and described as “human rights.” It is an important compliment to the Founders of the Western democratic tradition that they did not conceive of these rights as their’s alone; rather, they were building political community on rights deemed to be universal, rights belonging to all, rights intrinsic to the dignity of the individual human being, to borrow from the language above. The good state, these Founders believed, had to do with virtue as well as power: and they looked back to Cicero, and other classical Romans, for a word to describe civic virtue: pietas, an honorable caring for the common good. It seems to me no accident that pietas has to do with the City of God as well as the City of Man; in fact, one might even suggest that this civic virtue is an important point of intersection between the Two Cities.

Over time, the notion of “human rights,” which originally had to do with limits on the coercive power of the state, became broader and more comprehensive. In our own day, there are a vast variety of desiderata considered to be “human rights” by, say, the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights. This is neither the place nor the occasion to discuss the meaningfulness, or political utility, of designating virtually every boon that could be granted by a benevolent society as a “right’. Suffice it to say that in any intellectually and morally serious discussion of human rights, there must be an attempt to define the relationship of different types of rights to one another, or to assign priorities among the various rights, however many are conceived. To say that all human rights are of equal importance is to say that none are very important.

What, then, is the importance of religious freedom in the scheme of human rights? What priority shall we assign to it? My own answer is simple and to the point: religious freedom, liberty of conscience, is the most fundamental of human rights, and its protection is thus of the highest priority. Now, I believe it is quite possible to defend this proposition theologically, from the point of view of a believer. But how shall we defend it in a plural world where our belief is not universally shared?

The answer comes from understanding the basic character of the right of religious liberty suggested above. To affirm liberty of conscience is to declare that, within each individual human being, is a sanctum sanctorum, a Holy of Holies, where no other man, and no earthly power, may tread without profaning a sacred space. Put into secular language, the affirmation of liberty of conscience means that there is a sphere of privacy at the core of every human person which can never become public property. The profanation of this interior Holy of Holies, the invasion of the innermost sphere of the private and personal, is what totalitarianism is all about, for the essence of totalitarianism is the claim that there is no sphere of the private and the personal. That is what makes totalitarianism such a uniquely dangerous form of human oppression. Traditional tyrannies, such as today’s authoritarian regimes, will violate the sphere of the private, in order to maintain their own political power. But totalitarians profane the Holy of Holies on principle. They deny its very existence. They tear down the iconostasis that is the human soul — they attack the very idea of a personal conscience transcending in its object and its responsibilities the coercive power of the state — because such claims of interiority are fatal to the claims of the totalitarian State. We must stand against oppression of persons, violations of liberty of conscience, and religious persecution wherever and whenever we can. To the persecuted believer, it may well make no difference, in his or her moment of pain, whether the hand that carries the torturer’s rod is marked “totalitarian” or “authoritarian.” The pain is the same, as should our condemnation be. But this does not change the fact that we have a responsibility to discriminate between bad and worse regimes, because if we do not understand the difference between the two, the sphere of the worse will inevitably increase. It is not the business of the Church to discriminate between the persecuted on the basis of which type of regime is turning the screws of the rack; the business of the Church is to condemn, forthrightly and without cavil, the use of the rack to either defend political power or to attack the very notion of privacy, conscience, and personal transcendence. But the Church, in its thought about, and public address to, the crime of religious persecution has a responsibility to point out the difference between the various types of tyranny that create martyrs today. Nor, would I suggest, is the Church justified in muting its condemnation of certain forms of tyranny and certain persecutors for the sake of other values, even the value of ecumenical organizations. There are hierarchies of values, according to Scripture and theology, and the value of religious freedom must be ore-eminent.

Religious freedom, liberty of conscience, is thus the most basic of human rights because it establishes the radical distinction between the individual and the State that is the basis of any meaningful scheme of human rights. Properly understood and exercised, the right of religious liberty is not a threat to any State which is legitimately serving the common good of its people. But, by its very nature, — by its insistence that rights inhere in persons, and are not luxuries or benefices distributed by public authority — the right of religious freedom stands as a living condemnation of every form of public authority that does not serve the common good, but only its own selfish ends.

One final point here. There is an important connection between the advance of religious freedom and other human rights, and the cause of peace which concerns so many Christians around the world today. Our world will remain a world of conflict, for so long as it is this world; that is the political meaning of the doctrine of original sin. Human beings can, however, develop ways and means to settle their conflicts that do not require the use or threat of mass violence. Most simply put, those ways and means are the democratic structures of political community. Such structures are the only possible alternative to mass violence in this world as it is. We live now in a world that is a political arena, but not yet a political community. The transition from arena to community is the path we must traverse if there is to be a human future. But what kind of community shall we form? What will be the values that shape the political community, call it to task for its failures, call it forward into greater accomplishment? Those fundamental human rights of which religious liberty is most basic are the building blocks of the kind of political community that we in conscience can, and must, help form. We cannot have peace without the protection of these basic rights; any peace behind which persecution would continue is the peace of the slave, not the peace of the brave, as Leszek Kolakowski has recently put it. By defending religious freedom and other basic human rights, therefore, we are serving the cause of peace, because we are defending the basis on which a world capable of resolving its disputes without mass violence, a world of peace and freedom, can be built.



We hear much today about “survival” as the most important value. The theme is preached most vigorously by those concerned about the threat of nuclear war, but there are other carriers of the message.  The common denominator among them is their radically secularized view of the human experience. Theirs is a world without windows or doors. They deny, or cannot admit, that man is not the measure of himself. They deny, or cannot admit, that the truth of this world is bounded by a fuller Truth. They deny, or cannot admit, that love in this world is completed by a more radical Love that set the world on its journey and ever calls it Home.

This teaching about survival as the highest value must be challenged by the Church, in truth, in compassion, and in love. All the more reason, then, to be ashamed of the fact that parts of the Church have themselves succumbed to the survivalist creed. How can this be? The Church flows from the blood of Christ on the Cross. The Church is founded on its martyrs, today as yesterday; as Father Gleb Yakunin reminds us, in his letter to the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi,

“…confessing and suffering Christians are the seed of the Church; they are her glory, because of all the Christian family, they stand closest to the Lord Jesus Himself and imitate most directly and closely our Divine Teacher’s sacrifice on Golgotha.”

Of course, Christians care, deeply and passionately, about the future of this world and its children; we are commanded, in Genesis, to be the stewards of creation, not its executioners. But Christians know, from their meditation on the responsibility (as well as the right) of religious freedom, that it is precisely when man makes himself the only measure of himself — when his own sheer, physical survival becomes the preeminent value and concern of his life — that man does the most abominable and hateful things of which he is capable. Hitler and Stalin stand in stark testimony to the results of a view of human being-in-the-world that stresses race survival and the triumph of a this-worldly ideology above all else.

Survivalism is an idolatrous teaching. It threatens all the other values that it claims to defend, even while it subordinates them all to itself. One need not be a Christian, or even a religious believer, to grasp this; political philosopher Sidney Hook said it well some years ago:

“It is better to be a live jackal than a dead lion — for jackals, not men. Men who have the moral courage to fight intelligently for freedom have the best prospects of avoiding the fate of both live jackals and dead lions. Survival is not the be-all and end-all of a life worthy of man. Sometimes, the worst thing we can know about a man is that he has survived. Those who say life is worth living at any cost have already written for themselves an epitaph of infamy, for there is no cause and no person they will not betray to stay alive. Man’s vocation should be the use of the arts of intelligence in behalf of human freedom.”

Against that survivalism that now threatens to erode the very foundations of civilization as we know and cherish it, we pose the examples of the martyred and the persecuted: the examples of Archbishop Janani Luwum and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the examples of Patriarch Abuna Theophilos of Ethiopia, Sister Nijole Sadunaite of Lithuania, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Bishop Francis Ford of Maryknoll in China, Armando Valladares of Cuba.  Most especially, in this Hearing, we pose the example of Father Gleb Yakunin, a man of great moral and physical courage, a man of faithfulness to his priesthood and priestly fidelity to his Christian belief. Father Gleb Yakunin incarnates, in his own witness and suffering, the meaning of these words of Pope John Paul II in Warsaw in 1979, words which define the Christian understanding of the necessity of religious freedom:

“Man cannot be finally understood without Christ, or rather man cannot ultimately understand himself without Christ. He can understand neither who he is nor what his proper dignity is, nor his vocation and full destiny; he cannot understand any of this without Christ. That is why Christ cannot be excluded from man’s history anywhere in the world.”

To exclude Christ, to exclude God, to even deny the reality of liberty of conscience, is to do drastic, basic violence to the meaning of the human. That is what the martyred and persecuted Church reminds us. And it reminds us that we are human beings, not jackals. There are things worth dying for, just as there are things worth living and sacrificing for. It is a simple statement, but it rests on profound insights about man’s orientation to the transcendent, to God. St. Augustine said it in the 5th century: “Thou has made us for Thee, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” That is the truth, however it may be expressed theologically or philosophically, that lies at the basis of religious liberty. That is why religious liberty is the most basic of human rights. That is why survivalism threatens that which it intends to save.

The witness of Father Gleb Yakunin and the rest of the persecuted Church reminds us that God has created a world with windows, and that it is our duty, as well as our privilege, to draw open the blinds and shades whenever and wherever we are given the graced opportunity to do so. In so doing, we serve God, Christ, and all humanity.

  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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