By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The fundamental rights of individual freedom, or liberty in law, are a matter of man’s law, not God’s law; and freedom is at the heart of religious conflict today. Islam grew out of Judaism, and there are many similarities in their holy scriptures. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an emphasize obedience to God’s laws, and the laws themselves are quite similar, reflecting their common Semitic heritage. But the holy books do not mention individual freedom.
Jesus was a Jew who emphasized love over law as God’s standard of righteousness. That enabled Christianity to embrace those concepts of liberty in law that originated in the Enlightenment and were grounded in secular natural law rather than ancient holy laws. The human rights that protect our liberty in law are consistent with the teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, and that is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
Political Islam, or Islamism, is prevalent in Islamic cultures today. It represents the political sovereignty of God over man and demands submission to Islamic law, or shari’a, which denies the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws. Until the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648, the Christian world also denied liberty in law and enforced blasphemy laws with the divine right to rule.
In the 17th century the political sovereignty of God in the Western world was superseded by the concept of secular sovereignty and international law introduced by Hugo Grotius in his On the Law of War and Peace (1625). Those revolutionary innovations paved the way for the libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment that included the social contract theory of democracy and a secular rule of law that emphasized human rights.
Recognizing the political sovereignty of man over God does not deny the ultimate sovereignty of God—only the enforcement of God’s law. For there to be liberty in law religious standards of legitimacy must be considered voluntary moral standards rather than obligatory standards of law that are enforced by government. Fundamentalist religions that impose their religious laws on others deny liberty in law.
Today libertarian democracies emphasize human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech while Islamist nations deny those fundamental freedoms with shari’a. But in America the freedom of religion has been distorted by fundamentalist Christians who claim their freedom of religion allows them to violate laws that conflict with their beliefs, and have used religious freedom to fan the flames of religious hatred. Liberty in law reveals the moral quality of a nation’s religion, and in the U.S. it has often revealed human depravity and decadence.
In domestic U.S. politics liberty in law has emphasized individual rights and wants to the detriment of providing for the common good, and in a healthy democracy there must be a balance between the two. The lust for power, greed and disengenuity have come to characterize our politics, so that it is little wonder that Muslims are not impressed with libertarian democracy.
The enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamist regimes reflects a coercive and often hypocritical picture of moral purity. It also fosters violence since radical Islamist terrorists could not survive if Muslims were free to change their religion and criticize fundamentalist forms of Islamism. That makes promoting liberty in law in Islamic nations, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, a matter of national security; and the first sign of progress will be the elimination of apostasy and blasphemy laws.
Islam is expected to surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion by the end of the century. But even if democracy remains the preferred form of governance, submission to God’s law is likely to prevail in Islamic cultures. Egypt and Pakistan are examples of what Islamic democracy is likely to look like in the future. Both are U.S. allies that receive U.S. aid, but both continue to deny the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws.
This presents a daunting challenge for religious leaders who favor libertarian democracy over oppressive theocracy. E. J. Dionne, Jr. has asked, In todays’ troubling times, where are our faith leaders? Dionne believes that “religion has been subsumed by politics,” and considered by liberals in the U.S. to be “on the right end of politics;” and that because the media focuses on the most extreme examples of religion, the more moderate forms of religion are largely ignored.
Religion can restore a sense of morality to politics so long as religious fundamentalists do not impose their sacred standards of legitimacy to deny our liberty in law. We need to remember the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—including those of other religions. The question is which paradigm of religion and politics best represents our love for our neighbors—that of individual freedom or submission to oppressive religious laws? The answer is as self-evident as the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Notes and references:
Liberty in law is from America the Beautiful (words by Katherine Lee Bates, 1904):
America! America! God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
On love over law, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/love-over-law-principle-at-heart-of.html.
On The Greatest Commandment as a Common Word of Faith, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2015/01/jesus-meets-muhammad-is-there-common.html.
On The Freedoms of Religion and Speech as Essentials of Liberty in Law, see http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/2016/08/the-freedoms-of-religion-and-speech.html.
On religious freedom seriously lacking for three-fourths of the world’s population, see http://religionnews.com/2016/08/10/religious-freedom-seriously-lacking-three-fourths-worlds-population-ambassador-says/.
On trends in the law that expand the freedom of religion to give Christian fundamentalists a right to discriminate against others, see https://thinkprogress.org/federal-judge-says-religion-gives-you-a-right-to-discriminate-876705018d77#.yszfqcio5.
On a mother’s claim that her religious freedom justified beating her son with a hanger, see
On the contrast between human rights in libertarian democracies of the West and Islamic regimes in the East under shari’a, and the contrasting views of Islamic scholars on that topic, see Religion,Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights (pp 6-17) at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4qPfb4MvEswV2ZHS3hyWTcwbmc/view.
On the need to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, see
On the need to consider religious rules as voluntary moral standards rather than laws, see
On Fareed Zakaria’s commentary that the war on terrorism will not be won on the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of young Muslims, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-war-on-terrorism-wont-be-won-on-the-battlefield/2016/09/08/a3e781ec-75f8-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html?utm_term=.78842e2b5c31&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1. Accord, see Michael Gerson at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-did-911-mean-fifteen-years-later-were-still-finding-out/2016/09/08/0fff1c76-7600-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html?utm_term=.4c44181310e3&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On E. J. Dionne, Jr.’s commentary: In todays’ troubling times, where are our faith leaders? see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-search-of-humble-prophets/2016/08/24/7fa00d86-6a0e-11e6-ba32-5a4bf5aad4fa_story.html?utm_term=.9e845086e1e8&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.