Religious Oppression Wears Camouflage

Beware! Religious oppression wears camouflage. It always seems to be about something else. No one can dictate what others believe in their heart of hearts – but oppressors can still cut off the arms and legs of people's expressions of their faith commitments. Religious oppressors seek to break the basic link between belief and behavior – for people's "own good," for "peace" in society, for "social justice," or for whatever.

Some years ago I did illegal missionary work in Eastern Europe, behind the totalitarian communist "Iron Curtain," in East Berlin and in Rumania. Officially, the atheist, communist governments of Eastern Europe (generally from 1945-1990) all supported religious liberty. Yet they created religiously hostile environments in dozens of ways. For example, churches were free to meet, if they registered properly and met at agreed-upon times. However, there were issues if churches needed to make repairs on their buildings. There was a constant "shortage" of electrical, plumbing and other building supplies – and so none was available for churches. If a toilet or an electrical switch broke, no replacement was available. And by the way, the water main for the church's neighborhood very often "needed to be turned off" for "repairs," but only on Sundays. In one church where I visited, thousands met often for 3-4 hours, without working toilets. To survive, churches had to maneuver their way around or through these and other absurd restrictions and restraints.

As public philosopher, I have been privileged to engage in dialogue with international Islamic leaders. They all believe in religious liberty, they say, but they cannot allow people to change their religion. As a measurable result, Islamic countries reject the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – especially because it's Article 18 supports the right of every person to change his religion. Many Islamic countries – like Afghanistan – do not allow churches to organize or to build structures. In other countries – like Iraq and Egypt – church buildings are not protected from being burned or bombed. You are free to believe, but not to behave your faith. Religious oppression wears camouflage

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Similarly, our Obama administration does not tell people and churches what to believe. Of course. But it requires Christian organizations to behave contrary to their beliefs. Abortion pills are not expensive, and they are available free through hundreds of clinics, but our new government regulations effectively require religious groups to violate their consciences and buy them for employees. Saying that the religious organizations do not pay, because the health insurance companies must provide abortion pills free, makes no sense – because the insurance companies use still pay with the money these religious organizations pay for the health policies. No free pill; no free lunch.

Similarly, in most public schools all kinds of literature are studied – but the most important book is ignored. Student concerts are performed – devoid of religious songs. Officially we believe in religious liberty, so the very palpable religious oppression wears camouflage. Public money to help churches teach reading and writing to educationally disadvantaged youth then restricts churches from using the Bible for reading material, even though the Bible is the best read, the incomparable key to life literacy. All other books are fine. Clearly, the Bible has the best stories – including the greatest story ever told – but to teach this treasure we must engage volunteers. Religious oppression wears camouflage.

Religious oppression is subtle, but substantial – whether behind the "Iron Curtain," or in Islamic countries, or in 2012 America. Camouflaged or not, religious oppression is corrosive to human flourishing and violates the most elemental, God-given right – the most fundamental freedom.

Religious freedom is simply the liberty of conscience to choose, change, believe and behave according to our most deeply held commitments. People have sacrificed everything to achieve this liberty for themselves and their loved ones. No wonder it is the first in the American Bill of Rights. No wonder it is the most discussed point in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No wonder that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) wisely made religious freedom its first principle for our civic engagement, and it is one of the three prime principles of the timely Manhattan Declaration.

All of us humans are created with a God-shaped vacuum, an essential emptiness, and how we behave to fill that vacuum, or keep it empty, defines us. Through religious commitments we shape our own choices, our character, our will. Our Creator himself chose not to make us into mere puppets, but to grant to each of us a will of our own. We must certainly strongly resist when our people in power, under the guise of whatever comely camouflage, try to make us or others into its "puppets" – whether it is individuals, church or government – to manipulate or demean our consciences and our wills. Will we stand with those who are oppressed by power-hungry governments, including here and now in America?

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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