The following lightly edited remarks by John Nay, president of the International Religious Liberty Association, were delivered on August 21, 2023, as part of the opening program for the association's ninth World Congress.
I suppose the title I gave my little talk—Do We Really Support Religious Liberty?—may seem a bit odd. Some may wonder if it's a sort of rhetorical question—“Do we really support religious liberty? Of course we do! That’s why we are here!”
And then I suppose I could list several reasons why we all support it and consider it to be vitally important. We could cite Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the freedom to change religion, and so on. Then we could all feel good about ourselves and our commitment to this important human right.
If we only engage in that type of discussion, however, then a phrase by Abraham Lincoln comes to mind: “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”
So let me repeat that title: “Do we really support religious liberty?” We say we do. We say we believe in religious freedom for all people, including believers and nonbelievers. But do we really believe that in our hearts?
Not long ago, my wife and I were part of a small group discussion. One participant commented that “belonging outweighs believing.” He explained that while we might believe in good, right, and worthy things, when the going gets tough, we will usually stick with our group—whether it be our ethnic group, language group, or religious group—more than we’ll stick with what we say we believe.
We may say we believe in human rights for all, but if things get tough, we’re more likely to protect our group’s human rights over others. The same is true for religious liberty, I’m afraid.
Given that we are meeting at a Seventh-day Adventist institution, I hope no one will be offended if I use Adventists as an example. Do Seventh-day Adventists truly believe in religious liberty for all? Or is it a matter of promoting religious liberty primarily to protect that liberty for Seventh-day Adventists?
To be fair, I could choose other examples. Do Muslims, Hindus, Baptists, or members of the Latter-day Saints who say they support religious liberty do so because they truly believe in religious liberty for all? Or do they instead think “I want religious liberty for me and my group, so I better support it for others in order to strengthen it for me and my group.” Which is it? To be very clear, I can’t offer an answer to those questions, because obviously I can’t know other peoples’ inner motives or what they believe in their hearts.
Let me underline something—I believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is important. But we face some significant challenges. We come here together saying that we are committed to working toward the goal of religious freedom. And indeed, making progress toward that goal is important. And it isn’t easy. But I wonder whether we too often fall into thinking primarily about the importance of religious liberty for our own group. And let me add that I fully understand that very few of us do things for completely altruistic reasons.
As we know, there are continuing debates about the meaning of religious liberty here in the West, including in the United States. Religious liberty seems very secure here, particularly with our current Supreme Court’s membership. Nevertheless, we find ways to argue about it. Or we worry that the situation is good now but might get worse later.
The Supreme Court has issued decisions, for example, indicating that a group, organization, or school should not be discriminated against merely because it is religious. I agree with that. However, that “equal access” principle has, in some cases, led to government funding for religious schools. Is that a problem? It’s debatable, I suppose. But let me underline that if you or I say that it’s okay to provide public funds to a Baptist, Adventist, or Catholic school, then we had better be equally supportive of funding for a Muslim school. If we pause at that idea, then we probably should admit that we are not as supportive of religious liberty for all as perhaps we thought.
There are other issues to consider. To what extent is it permissible or equitable to limit other people’s civil rights based on our religious views? I’ll just cite one example, although I know it’s a bit sensitive—that of same-sex marriage. Before the Supreme Court decision on the issue, it seemed that various religious groups and religious people were at the forefront of the opposition to granting equal marriage rights. To me, it didn’t appear that their primary worry was that granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples would somehow impinge on their own religious rights or liberty.
What bothered me most was that it seemed like they were citing biblical reasons for their opposition to granting legal rights to others. I suggest that it is inconsistent—some would say even hypocritical—to advocate for religious liberty but oppose granting rights and freedoms to others who are not believers, using religious reasons for taking that stand.
There certainly are times when it may make good sense on secular grounds to oppose changes to laws. However, if there is no better reason for imposing restrictions on others than our religious views, then we had better think very carefully about whether we really believe in religious freedom for all (including the right not to believe) or whether we are trying to impose our religion on others.
Following from that, when we see others violating the principles of freedom, we then need to stand and be counted. We can focus on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as being our particular “mission” but if we are going to cite the document as an authority, we need to recognize that all the other rights cited in it are vital as well. We need to be intellectually honest in supporting human rights in line with the rest of the Universal Declaration.
That task is not always easy. In fact, we face major challenges as we work toward religious freedom for all. All of the major faiths have clear commands about how to treat others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Have we really internalized those commands?
In summary, it’s a big world and this is a big issue. The very size and diversity of the world means that progress may seem slow. We are advocating for an important issue. Sometimes we face serious obstacles as we seek to advance the cause of religious freedom. Sometimes those obstacles may even be of our own making or due to our own prejudices. If we are to truly work together for human dignity and religious freedom, I believe it’s useful for us to engage in some sincere self-examination.
Even if we started out advocating for religious liberty because we needed it ourselves, we are still advocating for a good cause. And even when the going seems slow, let’s remember that religious liberty is perpetually a work in progress. We can make progress by working together, even when it seems like the progress is incremental.
Ambassador (ret.) John Nay served in the United States Foreign Service for 36 years. He and his wife, Judy Ashdon Nay, live in Southwest Michigan, where he teaches part-time at Andrews University and Lake Michigan College.
He will be interviewed via Zoom this Saturday at 9:30 a.m. by Bonnie Dwyer for Pacific Union College Sabbath School. Here is the link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85040922192?pwd=dDJKSm9qVFhkWC9VblRoNXJyY2t0dz09
Earlier this month Adventist News Network reported on this speech and the three-day event commemorating its 130 years of advocacy.
Title image: IRLA/Spectrum.
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