Religious freedom—and discrimination—has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. And these headlines haven’t merely been about Christians being persecuted for their faith in places like Iran and North Korea, or Muslims in Burma, or Hindus in Pakistan. No, the issue has recently been hitting closer to home, especially with the controversial HHS contraceptive mandate, which led Timothy Dolan to say on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “We are concerned as pastors with the freedom of the Church as a whole—not just for the full range of its institutional forms, but also for the faithful in their daily lives—to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.”
It would seem that religious freedom is a cause nearly everyone should be able to support. The vast majority of the people on this planet, after all, would self-identify as religious—and arguably even secularists, whether they know it or not, have their own brand of faith (as one incisive observer put it 35 years ago, regardless of who you are and what you may or may not believe, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”).
This is clearly nothing new. Adherents of every faith—and those who wish to remain free from the domination of any one religion—all benefit from living in societies that constitutionally make room for all kinds of belief. But curiously, the cause of defending religious freedom is considered by many to be the cause of a limited few. Perhaps, as journalist Ed West supposed, the matter comes down to the fact that the victims of religious persecution throughout the world are “’too Christian’ to excite the Left, and ‘too foreign’ to excite the Right.”
Regardless, as Miroslav Volf argued in his 2011 book A Public Faith, today the world’s religions are growing numerically and in terms of global influence. There may have been a time when religions were for the most part geographically sequestered, but today we’re literally each other’s neighbors. And things get complicated when we begin asserting our competing visions of public life. So what do we do?
There are many thoughtful Christians seeking to answer that question, and among them is Os Guinness, an author and social critic with some thirty books to his name, including such works as The Call, The Case for Civility, and Unspeakable—each of which I heartily commend. In his new book, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity, Guinness offers “one proposal for a constructive solution” to the question, “What kind of a world community do we want to build and live in together?”
Guinness lays out his proposal as an eight-step “grand global revaluation” that he believes would lead to a world in which freedom and justice could thrive in a pluralistic context. I won’t summarize or outline each of those steps here. What I will do is share four key lessons I gleaned from my reading of the book.
- Religious freedom is essential for human flourishing. This is true both individually and corporately. “True human flourishing requires a form of harmony that blends diversity with genuine liberty,” writes Guinness. “The challenge of our time is to blend diversity with liberty and still create harmony.” Though it is often framed as a matter of us versus them, religious freedom is for the good of all.
- To reappropriate a U2 lyric, we can’t deny for others what we demand for ourselves in terms of religious freedom. Those of us who take a principled stance in calling for religious freedom must insist on this freedom for all—not just for our own tribe. Put another way, if religious freedom is to be legitimate, it means that any rights we claim for Christians must be assured to those of all faiths.
- While threats to religious freedom in the West are not presently equal to those in places where people are martyred for their faith, this doesn’t mean these concerns closer to home don’t matter. People of conscience shouldn’t wait to defend freedom of religion against those who have competing ambitions—including theocrats and fundamentalist secularists alike—until the threats become life-threatening. Religious freedom is about human flourishing, after all, and there’s more to flourishing than mere survival.
- We shouldn’t be content to simply outsource the cause of defending religious freedom to legal professionals and culture warriors. Conversations about religious freedom and discrimination usually bring to mind lawyers and lobbyists, and the content of these discussions consist to a large extent of fear mongering. Though legal and advocacy organizations certainly have their place, there is, thank God, more to the cause of religious freedom than entrenched (and expensive) legal fights. Cultivating habits of the heart, engaging in civic education, being good neighbors, seeking the common good, and being faithful, winsome witnesses all matter just as much as legal battles do. As Guinness writes, despite the important role of the courts, “an ounce of civility would solve a ton of controversies that no litigation will ever help.”
Despite the tremendous importance of those four lessons drawn from Guinness’s insights in this book, I also have a pair of critiques. For one thing, The Global Public Square struck me as unnecessarily repetitive. Granted, a book of 230 pages can’t be considered excessive for a topic of the magnitude of globalization and religious freedom. But on several occasions I found myself experiencing déjà vu moments, and it wasn’t entirely clear why such verbose repetition was entirely necessary.
Second, there was a bit too much preaching to the choir going on, at least for my liking. I’d hazard a guess that most readers of this book would be Christians who already consider religious freedom important. So I couldn’t help but wonder why Guinness spent so much time seeking to demonstrate how religious freedom—largely in the West—is under threat, rather than briefly introducing the problem (which most readers likely already agree upon) before moving on to devote the rest of the book to that “constructive solution” he promised.
Though Guinness’s writing consistently avoids the ugliness of the typical culture warrior, it’s not entirely clear to me how he reconciles this book’s somewhat alarmist tone with that of his thoroughly winsome 2008 book The Case for Civility, in which he wrote so eloquently,
Above all, we must not only decry the darkness but spread the light. We must not only protest the letter of the First Amendment but live the spirit of its principles—people of conscience in our faiths, who respect the right of freedom of conscience for others; people of truth in our speech, who recognize the right of others to speak freely, too; and people of love in our communities, who recognizing the right of freedom of assembly for all, including those whose same freedom of conscience leads them to speak and assemble in order to disagree with us.
Overall, however, the book is a helpful one for navigating important issues related to religious freedom and discrimination. I’d still encourage citizens concerned with religious freedom for the good of all to begin with Volf’s A Public Faith, but there is much in The Global Public Square to commend as well, and a careful reading of it will be duly rewarded.