Religious freedom has become a new galvanizing force in the Catholic–evangelical alliance, particularly as Christianity is coming under new repression in Islamic societies and as orthodox Protestant and Catholic churches charge that their convictions are being driven out of the public square in the West.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an ongoing dialogue group organized by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, brought together 70 evangelical and Catholic leaders to sign on to its latest statement, “In Defense of Religious Freedom.” The introduction to the statement published in the March issue of First Things magazine notes that when Evangelicals and Catholics started in 1994, a “new era of religious freedom seemed at hand.”
Today, the authors claim that “proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare ‘freedom of worship.’” The statement focuses on how Christians are the victims of persecution in Islamic societies and that even the “Arab Spring” is likely to lead to further deterioration of the situation of Christian minorities. Aside from the repressive regimes of North Korea, China and Vietnam, the statement takes particular aim at Western nations where “coersive state power is being deployed to impose a secularist agenda on society while driving religious faith and practice out of public life.”
The statement cites cases in Canada, where evangelical pastors have been fined for preaching their views on sexual morality, and in the UK, where evangelical couples have been denied foster children. In the U.S., the statement says that religious freedom is being curtailed through courts and through legislation, including limiting “conscience protections” for religious organizations to opt out of providing objectionable services and treatments, such as contraception. The issue of providing contraception as part of the proposed national health-care system was (and to a certain extent, still is, even with Obama’s revisions) such a unifying force for conservative religious groups because it is seen as having a secularizing effect on the country, according to the journal Society (March/April).
“In the case of contraception, the legal right to its access has evolved from the freedom to choose it to the requirement to provide it (even at no cost) as a matter of public health. In one sense the policy recommendations of public health are a proxy for modern science and its alliance with government, thus implicating both in an enduring process of secularization.” The article concludes that “when it comes to the ‘science’ of sex, the alliances among media, government and science are so profoundly empowering of one another that it appears unlikely that beyond the claims for religious liberty (to be excluded and not coerced) there will be any kind of national conversation about these facts of life that does not stir the depths.”
(First Things, 35 E. 21st St., New York, NY 10010; Society, Springer, P.O. Box 2485, Secaucus, NJ 07096)