William F. Willoughby is religious news editor of the Washington (D.C.) Star newspaper.


ACCORDING TO Freedom House in New York, there is a sharp decrease, worldwide, in the number of people who enjoy what might be considered virtually complete human liberties, including the most basic one of all, religious freedom. But at the First World Congress on Religious Liberty held in Amsterdam (March 21-23) there appeared to be almost no end of descriptions of what religious freedom is and isn't—from either a theological perspective or a secular view.

The conference, attended by delegates from thirty nations, with more than half of the 350 participants from Europe, was a low-key spectacular. Spectacular in the sense that it was capable of being staged in the first place and spectacular because the participants want to see the congress expanded to include even more viewpoints and with the power to serve as a voice of conscience to a world that too readily forgets the dignity of the individual and even of whole nations and races.

The delegates voted convincingly to perpetuate themselves in the form of a wide-based, clarion-voiced permanent committee to be formulated later this year. They feel the time has come in the human-rights struggle to pull in a more concerted way, even though ideologies and theologies clash. Religious freedom is the business of theist, nontheist, and atheist alike, because religious freedom is the basic freedom of all freedoms.

Or is it? Roland Hegstad, the Seventh-day Adventist editor of Liberty Magazine, one of the conveners of the historic congress, believes firmly that if religious freedom is put in place, the other freedoms are sure or nearly sure to follow. In other words, without religious freedom, can an individual re ally be assured of his other freedoms freedom of association, freedom of education, freedom to pursue his own goals?

Just how far religious freedom reaches seemed to be one of the tacit considerations that emerged in the talks, each given independent of all the other talks. Although it was tacit, insofar as it was not an announced topic, it was vocal in that a large number of the speakers made it a special point of reference.

Does it mean that political expression can be an inextricable part of that right? Is the witness of one's faith in political outcries against human injustice part of this right?

I. Lalic, of Yugoslavia, minister of cults in the Croatian Republic, declared flatly: "If there are any disputes and problems in the relations between religious communities and the state, these problems have not a religious but a political character in Yugoslavia." He added that "religious communities in the self-management society can be absolutely free provided that they take no part in politics."

But hear James Wood, Jr., out. He is executive director of the Baptist World Alliance. Wood said:

"The mission of the church is not merely to preach justice but to be a force for justice in the world; not only to pro claim the principle of liberty but to be free from alliances with power structures that would mute her voice, and to support the cause of freedom for all men; not only to affirm man's right to religious freedom but to support the cause of religious freedom everywhere; not only to condemn evil but to disassociate herself from evil; not only to ex pound the reality of God but to be obedient to the will of God; and not only to promulgate the authority of the Bible but to let the message of the Scriptures be an authoritative guide for her work and witness."

Zachariasz Lyko, a Polish attorney and editor of the Polish Signs of the Times magazine, said that in Poland the confessional law of that country is com posed of several principles, the principal of which is separation of church and state. What this means is that the state is a political organization of the nation, designed for its own protection. This means that the state must be accepting toward everyone, meaning that above all else, it should be neutral toward religion. In short, it must be secular.

The church, on the other hand, is a religious organization of particular believers, designed specifically for their spiritual and religious development.

"In Poland, the church is separated from the state," Lyko said, "but cannot constitute the state in the state." In other words, there should be no mistaking the identity and role of either. It means that the church is free and separated—but not independent.

"The church is a part of society, and its mission is to serve, to proclaim the message of Jesus, for the spiritual benefit of the people," Lyko said. It does not mean complete isolation—such isolation being "not possible or even preferable."

He said that under his country's setup various forms of cooperation between the church and the state could exist, especially in the field of morality, in family relations, in temperance, moral education, overcoming social pathology, and the like.

But even though Lyko proposed that "the religious freedom of one country cannot constitute the only true pattern of religious liberty for all other countries," but must be assessed in light of the historical, social, and political back ground of the particular country involved, many delegates saw in his views not only a circumscribing of religious groups but a real sense of "using" them for the ends of the state. This appeared to such persons as a sublimation of the church to the state, of giving priority to meeting the objectives of the state, rather than following in the pursuit of God.

By sharp contrast, but not in answer to the Polish speaker's presentation was the thesis of Andrew L. Gunn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who told the delegates that "the soil is not conducive to the growth of religious freedom when the church is the mistress of the state or when the state is the tool of the church.

"When the church and the state use each other for their own purposes and ambitions, religious liberty always suffers. The history of mankind has too often been a history of civil powers using religion, or organized religion using the powers of the state to hold the people in subjugation.

"History has proven that organized religion should not control the state, for it makes freedom of conscience almost impossible. Too often toleration has been mistaken for true religious liberty, but toleration is only one of the prerequisites of religious liberty."

But Gunn would not deny the church freedom of expression on moral and social issues affecting the state. "A religious organization must be free to interpret to the public the meaning of its insights and its principles for the instruction of society, including government."

Different Theological and Ideological Nuances Showed Up

Different theological and ideological nuances showed up in papers presented by Theo C. van Boven, of the University of Amsterdam, and Dr. Philip Potter, of Geneva. Potter is secretary general of the World Council of Churches, and van Boven, a former staff member of the WCC, is soon to be sworn in as the new head of the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations.

Van Boven, a Dutch Reformed member, said that religious liberty is "one of the fundamental human rights (which) can never be separated from the broader spectrum of human rights."

This means, in his view—and one held by Potter as well—that "political and social witness in words and deeds is one of the essential aspects of religious liberty which religious bodies are entitled to claim."

Van Boven said that exercise of religious liberty involves other rights, such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to leave and to return to one's country, the right to education and to other matters essential to social justice.

"Indeed," he said, "many aspects of religious liberty have little or no meaning if other human rights are not effectively ensured. Religious liberty gets its full meaning only in the broad context of human rights."

To me as an observer, this appeared to be a direct inversion of Hegstad's thesis that religious freedom is the prince of freedoms—obtain that, and others will fall into line. Can a people have all the other freedoms catalogued by van Boven without having religious freedom? On the other hand, can a people have religious freedom and still not have other freedoms that round justice out?

Van Boven said, "I regret to say that in many countries with so-called Christian traditions and values, religious liberty in its political and social implications is in serious jeopardy. I refer to countries in Latin America, to Southern Africa, to countries in East Asia with a large Christian population.

"Priests, pastors, laymen, and lay women who, as a part of their Christian witness, work for social justice, who act as advocates of the oppressed, who provide relief to the persecuted, often get crushed. They risk their lives and liberty. Many of them are arrested and tortured; they may be expelled, or they may even disappear and get killed.

"In those situations the ruling powers accept or support the church as a protector of the status quo, but the same ruling powers take action against men and women of the church and others who are not associated with the church when they voice criticism and when they come out in favor of social justice on behalf of the dispossessed and the victims of discrimination."

Potter phrased it this way, sublimating the individual right to freedoms to the corporate, or societal approach, while not denying altogether the individual:

"The churches have not ceased to pro claim their right to religious freedom, but perhaps most important, the churches in many parts of the world are not merely making appeals to national authorities for religious tolerance, they are indeed exercising that freedom they have in Christ to stand up against those who show a patent disregard for humanity. They do not claim rights for themselves, but freedom and justice for all women and men in society, regard less of race, sex, or belief. This exercise of freedom, this engagement for justice, is leading not infrequently today to the prison gate or directly to the cross."

The congress, as I view it, was a distinct success. There were, naturally, varying ideas on the nature, definition, and scope of religious liberty. In this sense it could settle nothing. Nor was it intended to settle anything. The important thing is that it proved something. It proved that people with widely disparate views can talk as civil human beings about matters that are at the root of human existence.

The congress also proved that there is overwhelming consensus for a continuing forum for the great issues involved—a forum that for too long has been overdue. The real proof of the success of the First World Congress on Religious Liberty in Amsterdam lies in the future—whether indeed such a forum does succeed in making its voice heard above the cries of the anguish of a world which sees its God-granted but state-denied liberties passing away.

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William F. Willoughby is religious news editor of the Washington (D.C.) Star newspaper.

May 1977

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