Freedom and equality

August 27, 2023

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

One of the trends of change in European society today is that freedom of conscience, of expression and of religion is being trumped by laws against ‘hate speech’ and ‘discrimination’. Equality legislation is affecting the freedom of Christian schools, business and organisations. The display of crosses and other faith symbols in the public square is increasingly censored. Conscience rights for believers in medical professions and civil service are being cancelled. 

During our Summer School of European Studies this past week in Amsterdam, we attempted to probe behind these and other bewildering changes in society today to understand what is happening in fields of social values, laws, climate, demography, economics and identity politics.

The quote above surfaced during discussions in relation to the trend for European courts to rule in favour of ‘equal rights’ and ‘non-discrimination’ in gender issues over freedom of conscience and of religion. They are the words of Milton Friedman, for better or for worse one of the most influential economists of last century, speaking on equality and freedom in the free enterprise system. The statement takes on fresh relevance in the context of secular intolerance towards public expressions of faith in the public square.

Professor Evert Van de Poll led our discussion using an informative article from the International Journal for Religious Freedom, Death by a thousand cuts, which concluded that the intensity of secular intolerance was widespread in the West and getting worse. 

Among policymakers, journalists, academics and judges there is a high degree of religious illiteracy, which creates misunderstanding of religion and results in poorly-informed policies, court decisions, public information and public opinion. 

Identity politics influencing public policy and court cases is pushed by 1) classic secularists advocating exclusion of religion from the public square, 2) those feminists lobbying for the social and political emancipation of women from religious dogmas and institutions, and 3) minority rights groups pushing for rights and recognition of an open-ended spectrum of gender alternatives. 

Changing laws

While Christians will want to protect the vulnerable in society, they share a widespread concern when the rights of minorities are given precedence over other fundamental rights. Increased pressure to conform to ever-changing new social norms based on subjective emotion cancels expressions of traditional Christian ethics and morality. Christians opt to go silent rather than to stand for freedom of religion and conscience. 

Changing laws reshape public opinion, and increasing intolerance of those opposing such legislation. High profile law cases aim to create precedence. The bakers from Northern Ireland who refused to accept an order for a cake with the message ‘Support gay marriage’ faced popular condemnation for discrimination and intolerance. However, a four-year legal battle was eventually won by the bakers in 2018 in the UK Supreme Court who found them to have acted lawfully.

Another high profile ‘hate speech’ case was brought against Päivi Räsänen, Finland’s former Minister of the Interior (photo above via REUTERS/SCANPIX), and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola, criminally charged in 2019 with ‘hate speech’ for publicly sharing their faith-based beliefs. The charge fell under the section of ‘war crimes and crimes against humanity’ of the Finnish criminal code. Their charges carry tens of thousands of euros in fines and even the possibility of a two-year prison sentence. Räsänen, a member of the Finnish Lutheran church, questioned in a tweet the church’s sponsorship of ‘Pride 2019’, accompanied by an image of Bible verses from the first chapter of the book of Romans. 

Unanimous aquittal

Despite their unanimous acquittal at the Helsinki District Court in 2022, the prosecution appealed the ‘not guilty’ verdict on the basis that the Court reached the ‘wrong’ conclusion. Their case will be heard again this week in the Helsinki Court of Appeal.

Secular intolerance is likely to increase as secularisation and dechristianisation continues in Europe.  However, in criminal cases, most courts have ruled in favour of the religious freedom of Christians. In civil cases concerning matters of education or employment, for example, religious freedom is often the loser as judgements involve subjective interpretations.

A range of agencies – from the European Centre for Law and Justice, and the Scandanavian Human Rights Lawyers involved in this year’s State of Europe Forum in Stockholm, to the Brussels office of the European Evangelical Alliance – engage with European courts and institutions. Yet the Christian community as a whole needs to awaken to the intensity and pace at which secular intolerance is progressing. Policymakers, public servants (including the police) and judges need to be educated about religion, to realise that religions are not necessarily violent; that the separation of church and state is not violated by religious expression; and that an open society must leave room for conscientious objection and reasonable accommodation of deeply held beliefs. 

For the freedom of our European society is at stake.

Till next week,

One response to “Freedom and equality”

  1. I am posting this email conversation with my father at his request.

    Sent by Antonie
    You know I generally love your weekly words, but this one is pretty worrying. Milton Friedman, really? The architect of letting multinational companies and Big Oil bully their way to deregulation, at the cost of protecting the poor, the vulnerable, and God’s creation… He was the world’s most prominent (and successful) advocate of “might is right” extreme neoliberalism.

    It truly is a both/and conversation, not an either/or… These kind of simplistic polarised statements don’t help mutual understanding at all.

    Antonie Fountain

    Replied by Jeff:
    Thanks for the push back. I was initially hesitant about endorsing anything Friedman might say, but chose to use him as I do Richard Dawkins who says: ‘you cannot understand European history without understanding Christianity and the Bible.’ I certainly don’t endorse what he stood for, but in this case, I think he had a point.

    Thanks for expressing your concern.


    Replied by Antonie:
    Yup, I get that. But where your Dawkins quote is actually a surprising quote that is largely separate from the rest of his anti-christian thinking – unless it makes him a raging Brexiteer which wouldn’t surprise me – the Friedman quote is the foundation of his ‘might is right’ philosophy. In fact, if you’re basing your argument on the core tenets of neoliberal philosophy, it might be time to rethink that argument. Freedom without equality is social darwinism. Regardless of who is in power, the vulnerable must always be protected from abuse of said power. .

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