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Introduction

The Religious Freedom Page

  

Through the annals of time there has existed an inseparable link between religion and liberty. Those who have claimed liberty in the name of their God have, of course, used religion to legitimate their struggle to be free. The alliance between religion and liberty, however, runs deeper than a powerful source of legitimacy for overturning the status quo in human relationships.

Social contracts, whether they are based on egalitarian principles or tyranny, are arrangements between human beings. Covenants, on the other hand, are sacred arrangements between God and God's people. Covenants transcend social contracts, and are believed to endure for all time. The heavy hand of tyrants, as well as "ordinary" man-made institutions, may deny the promise of a covenant. That does not alter the Truth that believers share regarding special arrangements with God.

Freedoms attained by social contract are always precarious because not only may contracts be breached, they may be torn up and rewritten to the advantage of one group over another. Martin Luther King Jr's brilliant Letter From a Birmingham Jail acknowledges the legality of unjust laws that imprisoned him for civil disobedience. While accepting the consequences of his violation of the law, he appeals to a higher law and authority for deliverance from unjust laws and social milieu that continued to suppress Blacks a century after the Civil War that was fought to emancipate them.

This appeal to the authority of the Almighty has been invoked repeated throughout the ages. Moses appeal to Pharaoh to free the Israelites was in the name of God. The Truths identified as self-evident by the North American colonists who sought to loose themselves from England are found anchored in "unalienable Rights" endowed by their Creator. Thomas Jefferson's celebrated Virginue Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom concludes by acknowledging that the General Assembly of Virginia, who would pass the legislation, could not bind future legislators. But he counseled future legislators that if they did elect to repeal or narrow its operation, "such an act would be an infringement of natural right."

However conceived, as the God of the Israelites, the Enlightenment concept of Nature's God, an Eastern religious tradition that does not organize meaning around the concept of 'God," or a synchronistic contemporary faith tradition, religion is a powerful motivator. To be sure, through the ages people have also been motivated, in the name of God, to commit heinous acts beyond imagination. And, similarly, others have sought to persecute, and even eliminate, other groups because they professed to believe in a God unfamiliar to the dominant culture. Regrettably, religiously driven negative motivations remain among the most troubling of human activities as we begin a new millennium. The atrocities committed in the name of religion do not diminish one iota the inextricable link that binds the human spirit's quest for freedom to religion.

Democracy has emerged as the dominant form of government in the twentieth century. This, with the parallel expansion of individual liberty, is among the greatest of human achievements in any century.

It has now been a half-a-century since the United Nations set forth a resolution declaring a broad array of "universal human rights." If we have made some gigantic strides toward the achievement of democracy, freedom, and universal human rights during this century, the goals are yet far from being universal in fact. And, there is no certainty that the twenty-first century will see the achievement of these lofty goals

I have never had the opportunity to teach a course on "religious freedom." As a sociologist, devoting a course to the topic of religious freedom seemed not to be central to my discipline's teaching mission. But in the three decades I have been teaching sociology of religious courses at the University of Virginia I have tried to find at least a few moments to call attention to the fundamental role that religion has played in advocating human rights and promoting democracy. In a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, and so profoundly influenced by James Madison, at least a brief mention of the topic seemed appropriate if not mandatory.

As a social scientist of the old tradition that believes instruction should maximize objective knowledge and not the instructors' opinion, I mostly shy away from expressing my own beliefs in the classroom. On the matter of religious freedom, however, I have not hesitated to state my belief that religion is the final line of defense against every form of tyranny, including religious tyranny.

Over the years, students who take my course in New Religious Movements enter with the same perspective of the broader culture - extreme skepticism, if not outright disdain, toward groups that popular culture knows as "cults." Early in the term I tell them that how we respond to new religions is the real test of our commitment to religious freedom. Commitment to religious freedom, I argue, is in our self-interest, even if we have not religious beliefs ourselves. Religious freedom requires we "tolerate" groups we consider to be deviant and even troublesome.

Over the past quarter of the 20th century the U.S. became the most religiously pluralistic nation on earth. Civility requires that we go beyond mere tolerance to respect and celebrate our cultural and religious diversity.

If I have come to believe it is all right to express my own beliefs about the importance of religious freedom, I have also felt that there is never adequate time to adequately explore the importance and implications of this commitment.

An important part of my rationale for creating the Religious Freedom Page was to provide resources that I hoped my students would elect, on their own, to explore in greater depth. Occasionally students tell me they and done so, and it is always a gratifying moment when I learn they have found these resources valuable.

Over the past several years the Religious Freedom Page has taken on an identity and life of its own. Much of the material on this site does not consist of original works. What we have achieved, rather, is the assembly of a great many resources on the topic of religious freedom, perhaps more than can be found in any other single location on the Internet. We continue to add to this collection with the hope that many will find it a valuable resource both for exploring broad philosophical and theoretical issues about religious freedom, and also to examine the status of religious freedom in the nations of the world.

In the Fall of 2002 the University of Virginia will launch the Center on Religion and Democracy which will be headed by my colleague and friend, James Davison Hunter. Central to the mission of the Center is the exploration of religion in public life. The Center will be exploring many issues. Central to their inquiry will be a deeper understanding of the relationship between religion and democracy. This will involve historical, philosophical, theoretical and empirical inquiry. the empirical question of better understanding the relation between religion and democracy. We anticipate that the resources assembled on this page will be complementary to the goals of the Center.

We welcome your comments about the contents of this page, especially your suggestions for additional materials and organization that will improve the quality of the site.

Jeffrey K. Hadden
06/21/01


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Last modified: 7/3/01
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