An individual’s relationship with God is just that: individual, primary, and private. So when restrictions on individual worship occur, it’s only right to question them. But history has proven that the struggle for religious freedom isn’t exactly an easy road.
A case in point is found in a recent news article detailing Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s sanction of the Russian Orthodox Church as Russia’s national church (see Clifford J. Levy, “At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church,” The New York Times, April 24, 2008). The article notes that other denominations are routinely harassed by police, their activities limited or prohibited—essentially forcing them out of existence—while the Orthodox Church enjoys almost total acceptance.
It might be argued that recognizing a single denomination and its beliefs is an improvement over an atheistic state. Yet shouldn’t the fundamental argument be in support of each individual’s unique and direct relationship with God? And shouldn’t each person be free to pursue—or not to pursue—this relationship according to the dictates of his or her own conscience?
A government may be inclined to attempt to control worship out of fear of insurgent activity. But an individual’s intelligent acquaintance with God—with good—can only benefit the state and society in general. When citizens are able to pursue an understanding of God on their own terms, they become a rich resource for all society.
Two hundred years ago the United States recognized the value of religious freedom by securing it in the First Amendment to its Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And in 1994 the US Supreme Court interpreted this amendment to mean that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion” (Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 US 687 (1994), Justice David Souter).
Mary Baker Eddy saw humanity’s access to God as no more the property of a single denomination than the night sky is the property of a single telescope. She wrote: “God is universal; confined to no spot, defined by no dogma, appropriated by no sect. Not more to one than to all . . . and His people are they that reflect Him—that reflect Love.” She continued: “. . . their ears are attuned to His call. In the words of the loving disciple, ‘My sheep hear my voice, . . . and they follow me; . . . neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand’ ” (see Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1886, pp. 150–151). The truth of this statement has been evident to me in my work as chairman of my local clergy association, which brings me into regular contact with religious leaders in my home town—each representing his or her tradition, while respecting one another.
I’ve been struck by the quality of these individuals and the value of their presence in the community. Together they provide a spiritual resource for thousands of local families. But if they didn’t have the freedom to express themselves openly—or if one religion were favored at the expense of others—the unique contributions of these leaders would be limited.
About a year ago a religious center in town invited me, along with another member of my Church of Christ, Scientist, to answer some questions about our religion. At first I was apprehensive, thinking we might encounter sophisticated intellectual arguments. But as we prayed together, we determined that we’d been invited by our neighbors in good faith, and that we could respond in good faith, and with love. We couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed. We spent an hour answering questions that were both earnest and respectful. The experience was enlightening for everyone present.
What if we’d allowed fear to keep us away? Or what if such a discussion had been forbidden?
Attempting to force others to conform to a particular belief system lacks brotherly/sisterly love, and is likely to be unsuccessful. But honest attempts to understand one another and to share from the heart can result in understanding. Misconceptions drop away, common ground emerges, and goodwill is established among neighbors.
Hopefully the days of religious intolerance are coming to a close worldwide. The idea that “my God is better than your God” becomes irrelevant as everyone sees that there really is just one God—Love itself, the all-intelligent, omnipotent God. Jesus addressed God as “our Father,” confirming that we are all brothers and sisters.
Freedom to worship edifies the individual and benefits the community. It should be cherished and promoted throughout the world as primary among human rights. Nothing is gained by attempting to limit it, and untold good can come from honoring and respecting it.
Article originally appeared in the Christian Science Sentinel, June 9, 2008.
Republished with permission of The Christian Science Publishing Society.