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(Source: holy-icons.com)

by Nathaniel D. Torrey (@nathanieltorrey)

I had the privilege of attending a briefing on religious freedom issues in Eurasia and states in the former Soviet Union last week. It featured many speakers from Russian, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, including Anatoliy Pchenlintsev, Co-Chairman of the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, and Ivan Pashkevich, former Deputy Chief of Staff for President Lukashenko of Belarus.

To say the least, religious liberty’s existence in that part of the world is precarious and sometimes practically non-existent. One of the speakers had an entirely different person read his contribution so that he would not be punished by the law. This is in Uzbekistan, where practicing Christianity as effectively become “illegal, as any items connected God, like calendars, posters, CDs, books, etc.- all become illegal to possess. Also any meeting of Christians, including parties and birthday celebrations, come under [the] category of unlawful religious activity!”

In Uzbekistan, what many Christians fear in the face of measures like the HHS mandate have become a reality; the public square is being effectively cleansed of Christianity and has been relegated to the private sphere. One can be religious in your home or Church, but to display one’s religion or to make religiously informed decisions in the public square is forbidden.

However, the situation in Russia regarding religious liberty is a peculiar one. Russia is officially a secular nation that protects freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Unofficially, the Russian Orthodox Church is given legal preference over other religions, including other Christian denominations. This has become especially apparent when members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot staged a “punk protest” in Christ Our Savior Cathedral in Moscow and were given harsh sentences. Since this incident anti-blasphemy laws have been proposed that would punish the desecration of worship places and religious symbols. However most of these laws are phrased to protect only “traditional” or “historical” religions, which include Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Roman Catholics and Protestant sects, though technically being defended by the Russian Constitution, may be excluded if this language takes hold.

The situation in Russia has made me wonder about the limits of religious liberty. Whether we admit it or not, we recognize that freedom of conscience and religion is not an absolute right. No one objects that anyone’s religious liberty is trampled when we take the children of polygamous cults into social services, or prosecute cult leaders when they have child brides, ritual cannibalism, or other perverse rituals even if those practices are in some way consensual. We also don’t tolerate Muslim radicals who want to kill innocent people because they believe they are doing what their religion asks of them. We generally recognize that the things they teach are false and over all harmful. There are certain damages to the human person that trump the right to religious liberty and conscience. We know that any religion that approves of pedophilia or suicide bombers is no religion worth following and should not be permitted in any polity.

It is interesting that we are willing to say religious liberty is limited in this way, when it causes physical or “mental” harm to a person, but when it comes to spiritual matters we are willing to let any religion have its way. We have accepted hook line and sinker the political thought of the Enlightenment that began with Hobbes—that as long as no harm is being done, everything is permissible. The argument assumes a kind of tacit agnosticism, that how one relates to God is at best difficult to know and perhaps impossible. If that is true, the only restriction on thought can be if it leads to force. For Christianity in particular it assumes a kind of relativism about how one is saved by Christ and how participation in the Church brings this about. Questions about the nature of the Eucharist,ecclesiology, and even certain doctrines about the communion of the Saints and the role of the Virgin Mary and the like are simply seen as matters of taste.

The Russian Orthodox Church does not claim to be merely one way to Christ among other equally valid ways so long as they aren’t physically harming anyone. In their eyes, along with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, they are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They see the other Christian confessions as either a watered down version of the Faith at best or heretical and harmful at worst. The Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations make this claim as well.

If the Russian Orthodox Church claims it knows it is the way, not a way, to save the souls of the people of Russia, doesn’t it stand to reason that they would embrace a position of prestige in order to save the most souls? Imagine a society that tolerated malpractice in hospitals because the doctors doing it believed and felt strongly that their way was the right way while down the street there was a hospital that had the means of truly healing people. The local sheriff knocks on their door, offering to arrest those doing malpractice. Aren’t the people who know how to heal ethically responsible if they allow false teachings free reign?

This line of thinking is very alien to us Americans. After all, most of our religious heritage has been passed down to us from dissident Protestant minorities who fled churches that were backed by the law, such as the Puritans fleeing the Church of England. According to the church and law of their homelands, our religious ancestors were guilty of spiritual malpractice. The idea that a church could believe it alone possessed the narrow road to salvation seems so naturally reprehensible to most of us as to appear self-evident. Christians that are “traditional” or “orthodox” by American standards never have any problem saying that Christianity alone is the only way to salvation in regards to other religions. However, as soon as someone claims that their particular confession of Christianity is the only way to salvation, they are met with all the same arguments that progressives and liberals throw at Christianity generally: that it is being exclusive, narrow minded, divisive, bigoted, etc.

I would like to emphasize these are just some thoughts I had as I attended the conference, most of which are tentative. I do not think we should throw out religious liberty, I believe it to be a major blessing. But what if a commitment to objective truth means that we cannot accept religious liberty or liberty of conscience as absolute rights? What if talking about belief as a right actually cripples an investigation into the truth of the content of those beliefs?

I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comment section below.