Has religious freedom had its day here in the West?
Sure, we still have a large degree of religious freedom. Australia and other Western nations are light years away from North Korea, Cuba, or Iran when it comes to freedom of religion.

But let’s face it: religious freedom in Western countries like the US and Australia is under unprecedented pressure: Secular commentators disparage it. People like Israel Folau are fired for lack of it. And the Victorian Parliament has legislated against it. The trend is clear. And it’s not heading in the right direction. Will this important freedom survive into the future?

The trend is clear. And it’s not heading in the right direction. Will this important freedom survive into the future?

It’s not a pleasant question to ponder. Up until now, I was cautiously optimistic that it might survive despite opposition. But after reading two essays by American author and theologian Carl Trueman, I’m beginning to wonder if the proverbial writing is on the wall. In his online essays, entitled “The Rise of Psychological Man,” and “The Impact of Psychological Man,” Trueman argues that the Western view of our identity—who we are, and what we’re meant for—has shifted radically over the last few decades.[1] And this shift has accelerated to the point where once nonsensical ideas like gender fluidity are increasingly taken for granted, and hitherto uncontroversial freedoms (like religious freedom) are now suspect.

Trueman helps us understand why these things are happening:

1. The Radical Change In Our View of Identity:

The Rise of ‘Psychological Man’

In a radical break from earlier generations, modern-day secular westerners define themselves less and less by external identity markers—their family, nation or work—and increasingly by their internal feelings. Trueman writes:

The notions that human flourishing is found primarily in an inner sense of well-being, that authenticity is found by being able to act outwardly as one feels inwardly, and that who we are is largely a matter of personal choice not external imposition, are intuitions we [now] all share.

 He continues:

 Bruce Jenner could plausibly become Caitlyn only within a cultural framework that was already intuitive by 2015.

The ability to act outwardly as one feels inwardly—even to the point of having a fluid gender—captures where we are as a culture. [2]
And as human identity has been redefined, so too has oppression:

2. ‘Psychological Man’ Redefines Oppression:

Anything impeding our expression of internal desires is oppressive

While early generations saw oppression in terms of outward physical forces like fascism and communism, today’s oppression has grown to include psychological factors:

For today’s psychological self, oppression is a far broader concept with far less tangible, stable content. Oppression involves making people feel bad about themselves, less than fully human, or preventing them from being outwardly that which they are inwardly.

 And how do people become oppressed, according to this view?

In practice, this means that much of what is now considered oppression is linguistic in character. Words become all-important because words are speech-acts by which we acknowledge or deny the identity of another. We all intuitively understand this: to use a racial slur is not to describe someone but to denigrate them, to do something to them, to put them in their place. Words are, to use the hyperbolic jargon of our cultural moment, instruments of violence because injury is conceptualized in psychological terms. This is why speech codes are now so important.

Even the accidental use of an inappropriate pronoun can be seen as an assault.

Even the accidental use of an inappropriate pronoun can be seen as an assault on someone’s person because it is seen as a denial of their identity. The wrong words are now considered violence. [3]
So how does such a culture view religious freedom? Should religious people be free to speak and critique what other people believe, what other people feel?
Not surprisingly, when words are considered violence, freedom of speech and religion don’t go down well anymore:

Policing language thus becomes central to a society constituted by psychological selves. The net result of this is that matters once considered basic social goods such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion become problematic.

 3. Christianity is Seen as Harmful:

Because it Views Some Desires as Illegitimate.

Thus, Christianity is now seen as oppressive:

This places Christianity (and indeed religious conservatism in general) in an invidious position. The moral imagination of contemporary society has moved private desires and behaviors that Christianity has traditionally anathematized to the center of public identity and civic belonging.

 He continues:

 A Christian may well say to a gay person that they disapprove of sex outside of marriage just as they disapprove of homosexuality and cannot therefore be guilty of homophobia. But in the discourse of a society that assumes the self as psychological, what the gay person hears is a denial of his very identity…To object to homosexual sex is to deny a gay person’s very sense of self.

 He concludes:

That makes Christianity not simply implausible but downright morally offensive, even politically seditious, because it seems to threaten the common good. To maintain Christian teaching on sex and marriage is to engage in speech-acts that are considered violent and damaging to self-identity and therefore to society in general.

And that’s where our society is rapidly heading: to a place where Christianity is a threat ‘to the common good’, because it is ‘considered violent and damaging to self-identity’.

How much longer will religious freedom be tolerated when it’s seen as a threat to the common good?

Your average Aussie is less likely to be passionate about religious freedom when Christianity is seen as harmful.

Of course, not every non-Christian Australian sees Christianity this way. But it only takes a critical mass of vocal secular Aussies to argue that Christianity is harmful to vulnerable (sexual) minorities before our plea for religious freedom starts to seem like a plea for bigotry (Victoria, anyone?) At the very least, your average Aussie is less likely to be passionate about religious freedom when Christianity is seen as harmful.
This doesn’t mean that religious freedom is over. I don’t want to overplay the threat. We could still get a federal Religious Discrimination Act that would provide a measure of protection (although I’m led to believe even that’s uncertain). There are still many Australians who believe in basic freedoms, like freedom of speech, and thus freedom of religion. Our culture is divided. It’s messy. Only God knows the future (just look at 2020).

How Do We Respond in Such a Climate?

But regardless of what we think may happen, let’s keep praying for religious freedom (1 Tim 2:1-4). Let’s raise our voices to defend it. Let’s remember that although the nations rage against God, Christ sits enthroned, ruling our world (Matt 28:18). And let’s heed the words of 1 Peter 2:12, directed at another group of Christians facing similar pressure:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

First published at akosbalogh.com

[1] Trueman also released a book in 2020 about this issue—The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self— which I’ve yet to read. For a summary of his book, see this review from The Gospel Coalition website.

[2] Of course, this radical change didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a gradual development at first, driven by enlightenment era thinkers like Rosseau (human freedom is found outside of societal expectations); then picked up by the Romantics (‘inner psychology as constitutive of the real person’), and driven forward by Hegel, Marx and Darwin. By the end of the 19th century, many non-Christian thinkers reduced human purpose to whatever we desired: meaning became internalised. And with Freud, human flourishing became sexualised, tied to our sexual desires, such that an authentic human life entailed a life of sexual expression, free from societal and religious oppression.  And with Leftist Marxist thinking, such internal desires became politicised, such that political liberation entailed freedom from cultural constraints such as Judeo-Christian notions of sexual monogamy.

[3] It’s worth pointing out that abusive words can affect a person physically, especially when the verbal abuse is over a long period of time. But in the new view of oppression, it’s not merely abusive words that are considered violence: even words deemed merely offensive (e.g. a political position one disagrees with) is now considered violence.