Religious Freedom: Be careful what you wish for

Tim Costello on the perverse truth about government protection of faith

I have been following the debate about a positive right of freedom for religion in Australia.

I do think we need such a right but I do not think it should be considered in isolation from a general Human Rights Charter.

To put it in context, many know that on January 6, 1941, during his State of the Union address, United States of America President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a famous appeal for a world based on four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear.

Freedom of worship was understood as a pillar of human rights. It is that fundamental.

Later in that same year, he and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter declaring that the Allied commitment to universal human rights was the main objective in fighting the war – something that would have been a surprise to the then Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

But freedom of worship among the four freedoms has been central to the development of human rights ever since – and before then; in the evolution of human rights, it was the freedom of worship and freedom of conscience that gave birth to so many other rights, including the freedom of speech that Roosevelt appealed for.

Even then, though, it often had to be wrested from the dominant State Church which claimed its ‘religious freedom’ to oppress minorities with discriminatory legislation. Take the right to admission to Oxford or Cambridge universities in England, for example. Not until the Universities Test Act of 1871 were religious tests abolished, allowing Roman Catholics and dissenters to take up fellowships and studentships.

Religious tests for any degree other than a degree in Divinity were abolished.

President Roosevelt was inspired by HG Wells and his book The Rights of Man which was published in 1939, on the eve of the World War II. Here, Wells advocated that the war against fascism must end with the replacement of the League of Nations by a permanent alliance of democracies (Parliamentary peoples) committed to a ‘new world order’ – founded on a binding convention of human rights – that authoritarian nations would not be allowed to join.

Australia stands alone today amongst parliamentary democracies in not having a charter of human rights – either statutory or constitutional.

Too often Conservatives have opposed this as giving the courts, not parliament, too much power to protect rights and fearing judicial activism.

Now, there is a push for a related bill but it contains just one right, namely religious freedom, which particularly has been given momentum after the same-sex marriage legislation. But this smells to secular Australians of special pleading by a self-interested group. Secular Australians wonder why this right only gives the religious the right to discriminate in employment and speech because of their religious beliefs.

Things would be much easier politically for Prime Minister Scott Morrison – a Pentecostal Christian – if there was a push by the Church for a comprehensive human rights charter that certainly includes freedom of religion, but is not limited to it.

As governmental support increases, the number of Christians declines significantly.

And to my fellow believers pushing this cause – in this debate we need to be careful for what we wish for. An article in Christianity Today by Nilay Saiya reports on her peer-reviewed findings in the Journal of Sociology of Religion which challenge the perceived wisdom that education and affluence spell Christianity’s demise. This is an analysis of 166 nations from 2010 to 2020 and it found that the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity through their laws and policies.

But here is the perverse twist. As governmental support increases, the number of Christians declines significantly. This report may surprise Christians as they realise that the biggest threat to Christian vitality is not necessarily persecution, affluence or pluralism but may in fact be state support.

In reality, Christianity appears to thrive where there is pluralism, not protection. Seven out of ten nations with the fastest growing Christian populations offer low or no official support for Christianity. Paradoxically, Christianity does best when it has to fend for itself and compete with no leg up.

Secondly, nine out of ten countries with the fastest-declining Christian populations offer moderate to high levels of official support for Christianity. Over time, it appears that favouritism from the state suppresses Christian vitality. As the report notes, Christians attempting to curry favour with the state become distracted from their mission, as they become engrossed in the things of Caesar and their rights to maintain the faith in a privileged station.

Finally the report established the well-known paradox of persecution where, in these environments, believers turn to their faith as a source of strength and this devotion attracts those outside their faith. The growth of believers from Iran to China today is the modern day proof that Christian thinker Tertullian got it right in the second century when he wrote “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”.

Worship is a fundamental human right.

I know that many Christians feel it has become harder to be open about their faith in the work place and there is a lot of secular hostility. But equally I am worried by Christians in Australia reaching for the argument “we are being persecuted” without a Religious Freedom Bill. Others might see this as hyperbole. Persecution is not always the same as hostility. In the same week that I warned about this very thing in The Guardian newspaper, our PM Scott Morrison appeared at the Hillsong conference. He made the same point, calling upon us to remember that Christians who were persecuted in the Soviet Union were not complaining and trying to legislate protections but getting on growing their faith and growing the Church.

Worship is a fundamental human right. I certainly want religious people to be free to practise their faith. But let’s be careful not to overreach in our arguments. Let’s remember that Christian faith is primarily about others not ourselves and point out the need for a more general Bill of Rights, not just exclusive protections.

Freedom of religion remains fundamental but, in the end, the growth of the faith in Australia does not depend on state legislative protections. There is something higher involved.

Tim Costello is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christainity and Executive Director of Micah Australia.

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