The Persecution Complex: Real ‘religious’ freedom means allowing space for all religious agendas (even secular ones)

So. There’s a back and forth of sorts going on where Akos Balogh has responded (twice) to the first of my persecution complex posts. He’s asking “should Christians defend religious freedom” and responding to some of what I’ve outlined previously. I don’t want to rehash old ground here and you can follow his posts to see where he’s going.

What I do want to do is point out that if the last thing I wrote is true — if every person has a religious agenda because every person is a worshipper — then real religious freedom is simply freedom. For the Christian who sees every vision of the ‘good life’ as religious, “religious freedom” is a tautology. This has a few implications for how we take part in a secular landscape, and what we call for. Let’s ignore, for a moment, that the dominant secular religion appears to have it in for Christianity. I still think Stephen McAlpine’s Exile Stage 2 thing is true, (and I still think we’re in Rome — my response to that post). If we’re serious about ‘religious freedom’ for our neighbours — which is what Akos is calling for, when he argues that pursuing unfettered religious freedom is neighbour love for, for example, our Muslim neighbours, then we need to extend that to our gay neighbours. Freedom to practice their religion; their pursuit of happiness; their god. At the moment, these neighbours are suggesting their worship requires marriage equality. If the last post is true, this is a love — a desire — for an object of worship that is orienting members of the gay community and those who are part of the larger religion of sexual liberty and freedom. In the ancient world there were actual gods that people would worship who embodied these things, so its not beyond the pale to suggest this is a religious belief, even if its adherents deny it.

It’s up to those arguing for religious freedom to show why others should not be free to practice their religion freely, or to show that their free practice of this religion impinges on, or harms, members of the community-beyond-their-community.

What advocates of religious freedom need to articulate better is why we might seek to limit the freedom of others. Which we do. Typically the same voices calling for religious freedom are also amongst the loudest voices upholding traditional marriage. Which makes it confusing, because it sounds a lot like these voices aren’t pushing for religious freedom across the board, but for Christians to remain the gatekeepers in our secular public square. This inconsistency is jarring; and I wonder how much it has contributed to our rapid exile from the public square. We have not been able to articulate the difference between our desire for religious freedom, and our desire for our vision of the good (and I believe God’s created order is the ultimate good) to form the basis of our society which is religiously pluralistic, and full of competing visions.

I think it’s because we don’t practice what we’re preaching on this front, and that’s fine. Perhaps. We’ve either got to decide if we think life in secular Australia is a competition to run the table, so that the loudest and most popular voice determines the good for all, or if we really believe in liberal democracy, where the ‘table’ — the public — is run in such a way that everybody at it feels like their freedoms are protected as much as possible; but where the table comes to agreement to limit certain freedoms for the sake of the common good, or to minimise harm. Part of the art of secular democracy is making compromises that extend freedoms to others. We’ve been pretty uncompromising in our time at the head of the table; and while we might be prepared to extend some sort of branch to other religions whose Gods are transcendent or spiritual rather than secular idols, this uncompromising stance while we’ve been in power will come back to bite us, and is.

We might argue that our ‘agenda’ is an agenda for real, objective, good. And it is. At least I believe it is. But we don’t live in a world where people see things objectively. And if Romans 1 and 8 are to be believed, people don’t see things objectively because God gives people over to a certain way of seeing the world, and only the Spirit restores our ability to see it truly. Our secular table has moved on from modernism and we keep approaching it as though we’re on the hunt for some objective common goods. It’s not going to work. It probably should never have worked if all agendas are religious or functions of worship. Because the things we worship are the foundation for what we think ‘objectivity’ is — its found in the will of the god(s), or God.

We might argue that other agendas cause harm. We should definitely speak out when we think something will lead to harm; and argue for good things. This is what loving our neighbours looks like. Certainly. But the role of the secular ‘table’ is to hear many of these visions of ‘goodness’ and ‘harm’ and to hold them in balance. What is harmful is almost always an assessment based on our own standards (though often, by God’s common grace, people will still have shared senses of what is good and what is harm). This common grace is clouded by the worship of idols though. As worshippers are given over to a broken way of seeing the world.

If we want to participate in our secular democracy, as worshippers with an agenda, then we must, in articulating a ‘good’ also identify things that are ‘not good’ — all agendas do that.

The role of the common table is to figure out what harms we’re going to allow, what harms we’re going to limit, and how we’re going to prevent different groups causing harm to one another as we pursue common goods. Safe Schools is an interesting test case for this, so too is RI. Both sides of the same sex marriage debate are also making arguments on the basis of harm minimisation. But this is fraught, because the standards held in common are very small when we’re talking, from a Christian point of view, about people whom ‘God has given over’ to particular wrong views of the world. We’re talking to people whose imaginations and desires are fired up by their objects of worship, and seeking to deny them their loves. Imagine if the boot was on the other foot. We may not need to imagine this hypothetically for very long; and we don’t need to look far overseas to see how Christians are treated in countries without a ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage. It must be odd for our brothers and sisters in countries where the regime is anti-Christian and anti-democratic to see our hand-wringing in the face of social change; to many of our brothers and sisters around the world and through history what we are talking about is a luxury.

If we really believe in religious freedom and we really want it for ourselves, maybe its time we started confronting the reality of life in a secular (but not irreligious) public, maybe its time we started finding ways to both generously give freedom to others (even when we think what they’re doing is not good and that it causes harm), recognising that what they are asking for is religious freedom, even if they don’t articulate it that way. Maybe we should do this in order to maintain our own voice at the table; but maybe we should also do this because God has given them over to this way of thinking and the way out comes via us using our voice to call people to a new type of worship. The worship of the true and living God. Maybe it’s too late to keep our voice at the table in our secular, liberal, democracy. But perhaps on the way out we should use whatever voice we still have to lovingly and carefully articulate our counter-vision for the good so that people in our public might consider it; and might even change their object of worship as the Holy Spirit changes the way they see the world. Who knows, maybe as it has been historically in the west, that will be what actually delivers us freedom as God changes the hearts and minds of those we speak to.