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Os Guinness: Liberals and Conservatives Are Getting Religious Freedom Wrong
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Os Guinness is passionate about religious freedom. The legendary social critic is the author of the Williamsburg Charter, the Global Charter of Conscience, and many other works on the issue. In his latest book, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity, Guinness offers a clarion call for protecting and promoting religious freedom as both a fundamental human right for all individuals and a foundational principle for any flourishing civil society. Judd Birdsall, who served from 2007-2011 with the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, spoke with Guinness about the possibilties and challenges of securing religious freedom in a multi-faith world.

Why write a book about religious freedom now?

Religious freedom is one of the world's most urgent issues at this moment in history. For a start, it is the guarantee and protection of the foundational human right that best allows us the freedom to be human. Also, it is under assault around the world as never before, whether through brutal government oppression (think of China and Iran) or horrifying sectarian violence (think of Nigeria, Egypt, and much of the Middle East). But what makes the situation worse is the failure of the West to live up to the best of its heritage, and therefore to fail in demonstrating an alternative. This is especially tragic in the U.S., where the founders' settlement, which James Madison called the "true remedy" to the problem, is steadily being destroyed by fifty years of culture warring. And all this is happening at a time when the challenge of "living with our deepest differences" has become an urgent global problem.

There are of course endless academic studies of the issue, and many individuals and organizations have stood courageously against the violations of religious freedom, but where are the constructive proposals that lead to a better way? And where are the statesmanlike leaders addressing the issue? I hope my book will contribute to a new Western debate reaffirming the foundational importance of religious freedom. I hope too that it will challenge Americans not to squander their heritage foolishly as so many are doing now.

Americans employ the term "religious freedom," while Europeans prefer the roughly synonymous term "freedom of religion and belief." In the book, you suggest something deeper and broader with the term "soul freedom." What is "soul freedom"?

"Soul Liberty" was Roger Williams's magnificent term for religious freedom. It stands over against those who confuse religious freedom with mere toleration, or shrink it to mean only the freedom to worship. It challenges those who view it simply as "freedom for the religious," or think that when religion is dismissed, religious freedom can be ignored. As Article 1 of the Global Charter of Conscience declares, religious freedom is "the right to adopt, hold, freely exercise, share, or change one's beliefs subject solely to the dictates of conscience and independent of all outside, especially governmental control." Seen this way, freedom of religion and belief (which covers secularist worldviews too) is essential because it involves nothing less that our freedom to be human.

You call "soul freedom" the "golden key" to building a free, just, and equitable public square. How so?

Religious freedom is a foundational human right that should be guaranteed and protected simply for its own sake. But over and above that, numerous studies show that when religious freedom is respected, there are many social and political benefits, such as civility in public life, harmony in society as a whole, and vitality in the entrepreneurial sectors of civil society. Violations of religious freedom, such as the recent health care mandates hitting Catholic hospitals and other religious employers, are therefore not only wrong, but blind. As such requirements spread, they will cramp, if not kill the goose that lays the golden egg. One day our brave new government officials will go out in the morning and find there is no golden egg—and therefore they must spend more, and grow government even larger, to cover the gap created by the diminishing of the faith-based organizations.

You cite several contemporary challenges to soul freedom, including the growing tension between the rival claims of religious liberty and sexual equality. How does a commitment to soul freedom help citizens navigate that tricky terrain?

Homosexual rights are now an established civil right in much of the West. But a civil right (which is conferred by some society) should never trump a human right like religious liberty (which is inherent in human nature). When that happens, the effect is to undermine all rights altogether, and turn politics into a mere power struggle. Not all homosexual activists have made this mistake, but those who do have fallen for one of the oldest pitfalls in the advance of human rights—the way in which (to put it in Roger Williams's terms again) those who were once "under the hatches" of the ship of state behave differently when they are "at the helm." The alternative way forward, when rights clash as they do now, is to seek for "reasonable accommodation" of differing rights, a very different procedure than the zero-sum policy currently being pursued.

Your subtitle ("Religious freedom and the making of a world safe for diversity") is a play on Woodrow Wilson's call to make the world "safe for democracy." Wilson is often accused of utopianism. Is making the world safe for diversity just another form of utopianism?

Such are the oppressions and convulsions around the world, and the polarization and gridlock in Washington, D.C., that any constructive proposal can be dismissed cheaply as utopian! That said, where would the U.S. be if such founders as James Madison had not learned from the 1,500 years of bad European precedents and dared to find a new way of relating religion and public life? But I am no Pollyanna. The global conflicts and bloodshed are tragic, Europe's commitment is floundering, the U.S. is carelessly throwing away its heritage, and there are no statesmanlike leaders addressing the issues, whether in the U.S. or anywhere.

The year 2015 will mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Any assessment of where we are now would have to be very sober. In the present political climate, we could not even pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Marxist nations would oppose it from one side and Muslim nations from the other, and the Western world has lost the urgency and the moral authority it had in 1948, when the Declaration was drafted after the defeat of the Nazis. But my goal in the book is to be hopeful as well as realistic.

"Diversity" is a dirty word for many conservatives who view it as a thin disguise for relativism or social engineering. What do you mean by "diversity," and why should conservatives—and liberals—champion it?

Many conservatives misunderstand and then twist the term "diversity." Diversity is simply a social fact. We are in a world where it is now said, because of the media, easy travel, and migration, that "everyone is now everywhere." What is dangerous is not diversity per se, but relativism—the claim that there is no such thing as truth. Freedom itself cannot be defended on the basis of relativism. So conservatives are wrong to dismiss diversity, just as liberals are foolish to celebrate it without working out its implications. E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One) was once not just America's motto, but its greatest achievement. But today America is stressing the pluribus at the expense of the unum. The result can only be disastrous. The real question is, "How do we live with our deepest differences" when those differences are stronger and deeper than ever before? The answer, I believe, is to recover a principled vision of religious freedom for all and forge a civil public square in which it can flourish.

In what other ways does The Global Public Square challenge both liberals and conservatives?

People on both sides are making some crucial mistakes in the way they think they are defending religious freedom. The result is some very unconservative conservatives and some highly illiberal liberals. Among the unconservative errors is the way many people are fighting back against violations through law and lawsuits alone—whereas anyone with a knowledge of history knows that the secret of freedom lies in cultivating certain "habits of the heart" (through civic education) and not just resorting to law. Among the errors of the illiberal liberals is the current vogue for equality at the expense of liberty. From the French Revolution on, there are stark lessons about what happens when egalitarianism becomes the ruling principle. Yet the U.S. seems bent on repeating those errors as the sexual revolution wins the day and applies its vision of equality and non-discrimination everywhere. What happens, as a result, is that the state ends up discriminating against religious liberty and freedom of conscience—as with the misguided directives "de-recognizing" religious student organizations in the University of California.

You were born in China and have spent most of your adult life in England and the United States. How has your experience of three different church-state models shaped your thinking on these issues?

My own experiences have shaped me enormously. I grew up under the beginning of Mao Zedong's reign of terror. I went to college when it was obvious that aggressive anti-Christian secularism was in part a reaction to the corrupt and oppressive state churches in Europe's past. And now I am living in the U.S., where I am stunned by the lack of understanding of and dedication to one of America's core principles and greatest accomplishments: religious freedom for everybody. My travels, of course, have taken me to other places, such as the Middle East, where the lack of religious freedom for all is tearing nations to pieces. In short, religious freedom for me is anything but an academic issue. It is all about the freedom to be human and to create just, peaceful, and thriving societies.

Evangelical promotion of religious liberty is often criticized for being self-serving. How can we be better religious liberty advocates?

A journalist in the '80s commented to me that evangelicals speak of "justice," but what they really mean is "just us." In some ways, that might be expected because the Christian faith is the most persecuted faith across the world, and even in the U.S. there is something of an "ABC moment" (Anything but Christianity) in many discussions. But we Christians are followers of Jesus who are called to be "people for others." We should remember too that religion is always most influential and positive in public life when it addresses the common good. There is also the simple fact that rights are reciprocal and rights and responsibilities are mutual. That means that our rights are best guaranteed and protected when the rights of all others are protected.

You call for securing a truly multi-faith society without succumbing to a lowest-common-denominator unity. How should religious groups find this sort of common ground?

Civility is too often confused with niceness, with squeamishness over differences, or with the idea that it means ecumenical unity and a compromise over truth. But I would argue that the vision of a civil public square is actually the best protection of "the freedom to be fully faithful," and at the same time a way to engage others with peaceful persuasion. Expressed philosophically, the differences between faiths are ultimate and irreducible at the level of presuppositions, but fortunately we can build an overlapping consensus at the practical day-to-day level, or a society as diverse as ours would blow itself apart. Needless to say, it is dangerous to neglect that consensus. It may appear fragile, but it is vital and must be sustained.

How does your vision speak into those contexts of severe intolerance and persecution such as Egypt where rival factions of Muslims have attacked each other—and even attacked Christian churches?

One of the greatest questions of the 21st century is: "Will Islam modernize peacefully?" That prospect is not inconceivable, but at the moment there are few indications to encourage such a positive outcome. As countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan show, Islam is in the throes of titanic convulsions that we must pay careful attention to as they work their way out. Unquestionably, Islamism at the moment has joined aggressive secularism to represent the two greatest threats to religious freedom around the world. But our own greatest danger does not come from the outside. It comes from within, from the fact that we in the West have forgotten who we are, and are unsure how we conduct our public lives when Muslims and other immigrants come into "our tent."

I am not utopian, as I said. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to religious tensions, and any solution would be much harder to achieve in Europe than in the U.S., and much, much harder in China and the Middle East than in Europe. But the tragedy is that when it should be natural for the U.S. to take the lead, it is failing to do so miserably.

Will America and the West wake up before it is too late? What will it take? We are each responsible only for ourselves, and for the little we can each do. But like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we can at least say that, whatever happens elsewhere in the world and even in our own countries, we will speak and act on behalf of a better way forward. Although the folly, the darkness, and the evil may spread, we must put our stake in the ground and say, "but not through me." That is what I have tried to do in the book.

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