The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the first achievements of the United Nations, was signed by the United States on December 10, 1948. For many countries, the freedoms named in this document were not always comfortable, and many signers fall far from actually protecting the rights in this declaration. Article 18 is particularly problematic for countries with state religions, but the USA has no state religion, and until recently, the USA would have been regarded as exemplary in its enforcement of Article 18. In fact, most American citizens would see in Article 18 a wordier statement that protects the same rights protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights read as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
It is important to note that the First Amendment protects both a right to the exercise of religion and a right to freedom of speech. The two rights are addressed separately in Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whether protected in a single article or in two, those rights are naturally and logically linked, because speech is integral to the exercise of religion. It is worth noting that the authors and legislators who passed the First Amendment did not think it necessary to say that a person was free to change his religion and free to manifest it in teaching, while two hundred years of observation of nations and human oppression motivated the authors of the UDHR to spell out those rights. The fact that they are not elaborated in more words does not reduce the protection of the First Amendment, because all those issues were intended to be incorporated within it. The Founders of the USA wanted to be sure that citizens could speak and act on their faith, including the right to persuasive and instructive speech. Even though they knew that any unprotected human right is subject to be suppressed by an autocratic or dictatorial government, they could hardly have imagined that in the twenty-first century, the freedom to speak of one’s religion and to talk with others about its teachings and its value would be compared to rape. Yet this sort of thing is actually happening in the US military.
Writing in the Washington Post, Sally Quinn reported a conversation with Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation discussing his concerns that military personnel should not be subjected to what he called “proselytizing”: “This is a national security threat. What is happening [aside from sexual assault] is spiritual rape. And what the Pentagon needs to understand is that it is sedition and treason. It should be punished.” This is harsh language for the act of sharing our faith that is central to Christian discipleship. Weinstein was returning from a meeting with Pentagon officials where he participated in a discussion of proselytizing, a practice Weinstein considers to be as brutal as sexual assault. Pressed for some explanation of his attitude, Weinstein placed the real onus for such brutality on groups he called “dominionist” and “fundamentalist,” but it is his general attitude that is concerning to Christians. Christians consider Christ’s command to “make disciples” wherever they go to be a foundation principle for obedient discipleship. For any part of the government to attempt to shut down the freedom to talk with others about their faith would simultaneously shut down their freedom to exercise their faith.
For the moment, the military is attempting to quiet the uproar caused by Mr. Weinstein’s comment. An announcement reported in USA Today simply says that conversations about faith are allowed as long as they don’t constitute harassment. Needless to say, the definition of “harassment” is fairly subjective, but for the moment, it is not considered treason for one soldier to offer to pray with one of his fellow soldiers, or for a petty officer to invite her bunkmates to a prayer meeting.
This issues concerns Christians, however, because it brings to light an attitude that is not unknown in the culture at large. While many secular thinkers simply ignore Christians, some feel obligated, like Mikey Weinstein, to protest and attempt to suppress expressions of Christian faith. The Freedom From Religion Foundation strongly protests the National Day of Prayer each year. This year’s announcement included this statement: “Don’t let the Christian Right hijack our secular Constitution.” Just last month, the FFRF celebrated joyously because they succeeded in persuading the Breathitt County Schools in Kentucky to remove displays of the Ten Commandments on the basis that the displays amounted to establishing a state religion. (Exactly how a display posted by a school district is in violation of the Constitutional prohibition against an act of Congress to establish a religion is not clear, but the displays were removed nonetheless.)
While many Christians prefer to stay out of political warfare, they need to know and care about attempts to suppress the freedom to share the faith. The authors of the US Constitution and the authors of the UNDHR all felt strongly about the freedom both to choose a religion and to talk about it with others, even to be persuasive in the conversation. This right is not universally protected. In many countries, the government states a commitment to freedom of religion, but the “freedom” is actually nonexistent due to the tightly constricted legal language. For example in China, people are “free” to be Christians or not as they choose, but if they choose to be Christian, they must belong to a church the government registers and read the Bible the government prints and listen to preachers the government authorizes. If they meet with neighbors for a spontaneous prayer meeting or if they choose to attend a church led by a pastor who did not graduate from the seminary the government operates, they can be arrested and imprisoned. The kind of liberty Christians enjoy in the US today is not common around the world.
The news about the attempt of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to suppress the sharing of Christian faith is just a hint at the ferocious enmity of some secular thinkers toward Christians. It is worth noting that secular thinkers constitute only one pincer of the cultural challenge Christians face in the US. The other pincer is Islam, and Islam is even more ferociously opposed to Christian evangelism than atheists in general. The move by Islam to promote the incorporation of sharia courts into the American legal structures could result in significant suppression of the ability of Christians to share their testimony with Muslims in the US. In a sharia court it would be a serious crime to converse with a Muslim for the purpose of sharing some other faith.
Jesus warned Christians that the world would reject them, because the world rejects him. It is clearly as true in the US as in any other nation. Unlike a nation such as China or Uzbekistan, the US actually responds to citizen action to protect rights such as the freedom to exercise the faith. Christians may wish not to be sullied by dirty politics, and they certainly should stay out of the mudfights, but Christians can and they must be voices for the freedom to exercise the faith in speech and action. Pray for the USA, and pray for the continued protection of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Freedoms that are not protected disappear.