By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Freedom and fundamentalism were both latecomers to religion. The individual freedom that has become a sacred political and religious value in libertarian democracies is derived from natural law, not theology, and came with the Enlightenment more than 250 years ago. Religious fundamentalism was a reaction to the threat of change posed by the advances in knowledge and reason of the Enlightenment. Moses, Jesus and Muhammad taught a collective ethic and never mentioned individual freedom; and since religious fundamentalism is based on maintaining the absolute truth of ancient scriptures, fundamentalists give short shrift to individual freedom.
Moses and Muhammad taught the primacy of God’s law as the standard of righteousness, while Jesus planted the seeds of freedom with his teachings on love over law. Even with their differences, the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor is a common word of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. John’s first letter goes further to equate God with love (I John 4:16), and John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the Logos, the word of God [or love] made flesh (John 1:1-14).
The principle of love over law taught by Jesus opened the door to individual freedom for ancient Jews, and the Apostle Paul affirmed that in his letter to the Roman church: “The commandments…are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10) Paul struggled with the relationship of free will and Jewish law, and understood that true faith and love for others could not be made obligatory by law. (Romans 3:19-28; 7:4-60; Galatians 5:1-14) Paul never mentioned human rights, but he recognized that true faith required freedom of choice. It required choosing to repent and to accept the transforming power of God’s forgiving love and grace.
St. Augustine elaborated on the theme of faith and love over law: “…If a commandment is kept through fear of punishment and not for love of righteousness, it is kept slavishly, not freely, and therefore is not [truly] kept at all. For fruit is good only if it grows from the root of love.” The writings of Paul and St. Augustine are based on scripture; but the Enlightenment challenged ancient scriptural truth with the new secular values of individual rights and freedom.
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and John Locke (1632-1704) were both theologians and political theorists who invoked natural law and reason rather than revelation as the guiding principles of political theory. Grotius is considered the father of international law, and in The Law of War and Peace (1625) he debunked the divine right to rule with the secular concept of sovereignty that provided for the political independence and integrity of each nation. Locke developed the social contract theory of democracy, with constitutional civil rights to have primacy over more dynamic laws to protect minorities from the tyranny of a majority.
Both Grotius and Locke acknowledged that natural law and reason were distinct from Christian theology, but they saw no conflict between natural law, reason and God’s moral law. The natural law of the Enlightenment liberated people from the divine right of royalty to rule with democratic governance and asserted the right of all people to inalienable human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech. Democracy, human rights and reason required that religious norms be voluntary standards of legitimacy rather than coercive laws.
In 17th century America, the Puritans ignored the primacy of love over law and established a fundamentalist theocracy in New England, complete with blasphemy laws. Roger Williams reacted to this oppression of religious freedom by advocating a “wall of separation between the Garden of the church and the wilderness of the world (or government).” Williams believed that the church had been corrupted when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Williams promoted freedom of religion to save the church from the corrupt powers of the state. It would be another century before Jefferson took up the cause to protect individual liberty from the powers of both church and state.
In his tour of America in 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville noted the oppression of Puritan fundamentalism: “The legislator, forgetting completely the great principles of religious liberty he himself demanded in Europe, forces attendance at divine service by fear of fines, and he goes as far as to strike with severe penalties, and often death, Christians who wish to worship God according to a form other than his.”
The fundamental freedoms of the Enlightenment are consistent with the love of God and neighbor, but those freedoms have evolved into a culture of self-centered greed, materialism and hedonism that conflicts with the moral imperative to love others. It is understandable that the excesses of freedom have caused Muslim fundamentalists to be skeptical of freedom, but their apostasy and blasphemy laws have done more harm, preventing the free will needed for true faith, as in 17th century New England and in Islamic cultures today. Faith cannot be coerced by outlawing immorality; the freedom to sin is a prerequisite for true faith.
Fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East today is similar to 17th century Christian fundamentalism in New England, with its blasphemy laws and execution of unbelievers. But there are progressive Islamic scholars like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im who recognize that true faith requires religious freedom, and that the coercive laws of shari’a must be considered voluntary standards of legitimacy in order to be compatible with the fundamental freedoms of international human rights law, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech.
Freedom cannot coexist with religious fundamentalism, but freedom without religion can be carried too far. Libertarian democracies have emphasized individual rights to the detriment of providing for the common good, but Islamic cultures are at the other end of the spectrum, denying the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws in the name of protecting Islam and providing for the common good. Both cultures need to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, and both have a long way to go.
Notes and References to Resources:
Related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted January 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Love over Law, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; and Fear and Fundamentalism, posted July 26, 2015.
On Saint Augustine, see The Spirit and the Letter, pp 11, 26, 64, cited in Tony Lane, Harpers Concise Book of Christian Faith, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1984, pp 43, 111, 112.
On Cotton Mather’s Puritan fundamentalism, the reaction of Roger Williams, and the observations of Alexis De Tocqueville, see Jon Meacham, American Gospel, Random House, New York, 2006, pages 52-56.
On freedom of choice in faith, Abdullahi Ahmed On An Na’im has said: “There should be no penal or other negative legal consequences for apostasy and all of the related concepts [e.g. blasphemy] from an Islamic perspective, because belief in Islam presupposes and requires the freedom of choice and can never be valid under coercion or intimidation.” Na’im, Islam and the Secular State, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 122. For a discussion of free will and religion and the divergent views of Na’im and other Islamic scholars on democracy and human rights, see Barnes, Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and HumanRights, pages 3-5 and 10-17, in Resources.