Living with differences

June 20, 2011

Europe could potentially show the world the way forward on one of the most pressing questions of our time: How do we live with differences, especially when these ideas are religious or ideological?
That is the view of well-known speaker and author, Os Guinness who told his audience at the inaugural State of Europe Forum last month in Budapest that Christians should be in the forefront in pressing these issues in the public square.
While many would say that the American experiment provides the answer, he said, anyone who knew America would know of the deep culture warring going on in that nation. Europe, despite its floundering moments, actually has the potential to show the world how to live with differences.
Os proposed to the 120 forum participants from across Europe the following six steps towards such an answer.
“One: know why freedom of conscience is crucial for everybody. Religious liberty is scorned today. It’s considered at best a second-class right to freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. But this is the first of the political rights. Freedom of speech requires freedom of conscience. It is the key to a civil society.
“Freedom of conscience is crucial for social harmony, because it is the truth that allows us to bring together strong political convictions with strong political stability. Many countries have one or the other but very few have both. A respect for freedom of conscience allows you to have diversity with liberty and yet social harmony.
“Two: we need to appreciate why and how freedom of conscience is threatened today. Three broad movements undermining freedom of conscience include:   
i. the marriage of separationism (a legal notion) with an aggressive  secularism (a philosophy), which is slowly excluding religious exercise and expression;
ii. Islamic activism, aiming to benefit Islam and gain privileges over other faiths; especially through laws on blasphemy and defamation. Freedom of conscience is being twisted to protect the rights of one set of beliefs over others;
iii. certain homosexual activism, which declares homosexual rights are civil rights. In the name of that ‘civil right’, all other rights can be seen as obstructive. This actually undermines all rights altogether.  All rights become a matter of power only.
“Three: we need to recognise the weaknesses in Christian responses so far. Many argue on the basis of the law alone rather than the habits of the heart. It is a secular fallacy to think that rights and freedom are established only by law. Freedom is best established by habits of the heart. When Christians rely on law alone, it is absolute folly.
“A second weakness is when Christians argue in defence of their own interest and not of the common good. We have been guilty of not being concerned for justice but ‘just-us’.
“A third weakness has been the extraordinary reliance on academic studies. Marx was right when he said the point is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it!
“Four: we need assess the different options for the public square. Many of the western settlements on religious and public life, which go back many centuries, are under pressure today.  They are not working. 
“One option is the sacred public square, where one religion is given a privleged position; the others are secondary. e.g. in England, or the American fear of the Christian Right. Much European secularity is a reaction to past examples of this option.
“A second option is the naked public square, where all religions are excluded (except secularism). This is highly illiberal, and excludes free speech.
“A third option is the civil public square, where those of all faiths are free to enter public life, within a broadly agreed framework of the rights and responsibilities of each citizen towards others.
“Five: we need to clear up misunderstandings of civility in public life and of civil public square. Civility is not niceness. It is a classical virtue and a duty whereby citizens can negotiate their differences. Civility is not a matter of interfaith dialogue, playing down differences. Differences between faith are irreducible and ultimate. Civility is not false tolerance. Respect for others’ faith does not mean accepting everything. The right to believe anything does not mean accepting that anything anyone believes is true.
“Six: we need to face up to the requirements for an effective resolution of this issue. This requires i) a declaration of principles; ii) legal implementation to protect that freedom of rights; and, iii) civic education, educating people for liberty, a ‘liberal’ education, to form the habits of the heart.”
In conclusion, said Os, if Christians would be at the forefront arguing for the rights of all, for religious liberty and  freedom of conscience for all its citizens, Europe could demonstrate a civil public square and be a beacon for the whole world.

Till next week, 
 Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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