There is so much talk about religious freedom in the West that it is considered a given, however it most certainly is not a given, at least not everywhere and not for everyone. If we look closely at the map of the world and consider what is happening, we will see that the world is becoming less free. We have to talk about freedom in an unfree world, where freedom is increasingly perceived as a problem and a threat. This is a remarkable paradox of our time — while we are concerned about threats to freedom, a number of religious and political leaders are talking about the threats of freedom, i.e., about the dangers to religion, state and society that freedom brings. Why is this so? Because freedom creates diversity and diversity stimulates competition in which the more promising compete with the more authoritative, the more intelligent with the more powerful, the more flexible with the greater. It is strange but true that in the twenty-first century, the number of supporters of religious freedom are much fewer than its opponents, and almost all of its adherents live in the West.
Religious freedom is one of the conditions of diversity. As Baptists, we consistently uphold the values of religious freedom because it is the only way that we can obtain a place alongside larger and more influential churches. We value freedom and diversity because we tend to emphasize the individual’s personal relationship with God, personal choice, and personal or group characteristics and preferences. We cannot accept the division of whole territories and countries, people and cultures by religions or denominations. We emphasize internal differences and freedom of choice in order to avoid violence, coercion and assimilation.
Today, diversity is under the threat. We have not even thought about how fragile freedom is and how vulnerable diversity is.
I want to highlight the three main threats to religious freedom — an aggressive secularism, radical Islam and political Orthodoxy.
The first threat to the Western world is well known, though there do not appear to have been any effective measures taken to protect the freedom of those who continue to believe and adhere to their traditions. The rights of the minority are in conflict with the tradition of the majority, the freedom to criticize tradition destroys the freedom to belong to it and trust it, the freedom not to believe violates the freedom to believe. The fact that the aggressive minority has managed to impose its non-traditional concept of marriage on a passive majority is a very significant and alarming precedent.
The second threat comes from the East, encompassing the so-called «Global South,» and its influence on Europe is growing. Recent events in Hungary and the discussion surrounding the issue of refugees in Europe involves a religious component. Europe, in offering tolerance to others, is losing its own identity, and is now dealing with violence on the part of refugees under the flag of the Islamic State. Of course, we should not succumb to Islamophobia, but we should also not close our eyes to the dangerous connection between religion and violence in Islam. Aggressive followers of Islam talk about freedom for themselves and then deny freedom to everyone else. Religious freedom and aggressive Islam are unlikely to be compatible.
The third threat is the newest for all of you, and we have experienced it in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries. For decades, Western Christians prayed for spiritual revival in this region. But today we can confidently say: it was not Orthodox Christianity that revived but political Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy replaced the atheist ideology and has become a major link in Putin’s public policy. Icons of Stalin are not a sensation, but a symbol of our time. Today the Russian Orthodox Army is fighting in the east of Ukraine, brutally persecuting Protestants and Catholics, all those who are not Orthodox.
Thus, religious freedom is a fragile value that has a lot of enemies in the West and in the East. At the same time there is no alternative to it because for us, Christians, this freedom is God-given. Perhaps we have to accept that the world will become increasingly less free, but we can create and cultivate oases and communities of freedom, primarily in and around our communities.
How do threats to religious freedom affect the Christian mission? They bring us back again to the original situation: Christ ascended to Heaven and left the Great Commission; the disciples are few and lost; the outside world is hostile. Then the apostles were denied «the kingdom,” but promised something much more important: «But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
We cannot consider democracy eternal and religious freedom universal and inviolable. We have to be ready to bear our witness in a variety of circumstances, including in an environment antagonistic to freedom. But this does not prevent us from confessing the principle of religious freedom as our own, building and strengthening the community and culture of freedom, demonstrating the benefits of freedom, and reminding others that freedom is God’s gift and our responsibility to Him.