In our weekly time of study and discussion followed by prayer, we reflected on the following video by Os Guinness. The title of the talk is, “A World Safe for Diversity.” It is an argument for the importance of religious liberty. It’s going to take you a little while, so pour yourself a good cup of coffee and give it a listen.
Early on in the talk he makes the point about how the different revolutions (French and American) had different relationships with religion. This was a point I was making in a previous post, citing Doug Laycock, a religious liberty attorney at UVA. In that context I stated:
In part because religion does not have a positive cultural association in French history (as contrasted with the positive cultural associations in the U.S.), we see a very different contemporary relationship with organized religion in France. If Christians continue to engage in the culture wars as they presently do, will we be at risk of losing positive cultural associations and good will that have long been a part of our history?
I see this as an important consideration for how religious people engage what they see as an erosion of religious liberty.
As I understand Guinness, the argument that needs to be made is that religious liberty is not the freedom to discriminate (as it is often perceived) but as fundamentally the freedom of conscience–to live your life consistent with your conscience. I will come back to this in a moment.
“Civility is not niceness,” says Guinness. (I talk about “convicted civility” all of the time–drawing from Richard Mouw–so this got my attention.) Civility refers to the “virtue and duty that allows citizens in the same society to negotiate differences with others peacefully.” Civility is also not unity–that our niceness will get us to a “human unity” if we just talk it out long enough. Our differences are “ultimate and irreducible,” and Guinness provides examples from different religions. We don’t believe the same things.
When we treat civility as unity we then frequently move to exclude from the public square the dissenting voices. This amounts to essentially the use of coercion to silence speech.
As one person in our discussion group shared, the alternative is that different groups defend each others freedom to exist. “Neither tries to annihilate the other. Neither tries to disenfranchise the other.”
Should those interested in religious liberty make legal battles? Guinness is not against that, as I understand him, but there may be benefits to being more selective about those battles while recognizing that legal battles are not sufficient moving forward. Persuasion and education are critical.
Interestingly, cultural debates regarding the gay rights movement have taken center stage. There is some irony to be found here, as the freedom to make your case and to live your life consistent with your conscience made it possible to even have such a movement. What would be a true loss is if that freedom were eroded. The freedom that made such a movement possible. What is more important than legal battles around photography and cake baking is (for Guinness) engaging in persuasion and civics training as to why religious liberty matters–why freedom of conscience matters. Toward that end, those interested in freedom of conscience will defend the smallest minority groups and their right to exist while fundamentally disagreeing with them where there are genuine differences.