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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO 81326

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Freedom of Belief as an Indicator of Democratic Rights in Society

(Remarks Delivered at the Fifth Annual Crimean Conference

on Man, Religion, and Society)

Having been asked to deliver remarks addressing the apparent restrictions on religious freedom in the 1997 Russian legislation concerning religion, I chose the above title. I then started with a series of propositions. In light of developments in the U.S., these thoughts may have value here as well.

(1) Freedom of Belief is no indicator of anything, for no one can possibly know what I believe, and whatever I believe cannot be used against me. It is only when I act on my beliefs that an issue of freedom may arise.

(2) My actions will, under recognized scientific principles, cause reaction.

(3) Inaction is an action.

(4) In biblical theory, my action will either be righteous or unrighteous (sinful). We might say that my actions will either advance, or not advance, the kingdom of God on earth.

(5) If a political climate makes me fearful of the possible reactions to my actions -- or if I have no reasonable means to weigh and judge the possible reactions because there are no rules in the political climate where I live -- then I may chose not to act and deprive myself of a freedom which may actually exist. That is, my perception of reality influences my decision to act or to not act.

(6) The degree to which I do or do not have faith in the righteousness and ultimate triumph of Creator God will impact my choice to exercise or not exercise any freedom which I may have.

(7) "Democratic rights" are not "Human Rights" and are also an indicator of nothing. [SOME THOUGHTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS] If God is, He is an Absolute Monarch. He is Chief Executive, Supreme Legislator and Final Judge. There is nothing democratic here. In the Bible, He gave no Executive or Legislative system. He did give the outlines for a legal and Judicial system, apparently needed at human level to carry forth the rule of His law. Democracy can be as repressive of human rights as any other political system, for an ever-changing majority can become tyrannical by legislation enforced by police and Courts.

(8) There can not be an absolute freedom for exercise of belief. God does not allow it -- the existence of Hell proves that. Nor can a State allow absolute freedom -- anarchy would be the result.

Where does this leave us?

It leaves us with the statement that: How a society deals with an exercised freedom of belief indicates the extent to which rule of law exists within that society.

But we must agree on what is rule of law. Rule of law is not: "The law says this or that, and so law rules". If that were all, then we have no objective way to judge a Hitler who, under the rule of his law, executed millions of Jews. No, true rule of law requires a "law above law" -- an absolute, never changing, law which is binding on all men at all times and in all circumstances.

Now apart from this issue of "law above law", I see seven things by which we can judge the level of rule of law within a society.

(1) Rule of law requires that all persons within a society must stand equally before and under the law; that is, that no one comes before the law carrying a mark against him, nor is any one above having their actions examined by the law and held accountable for violation of the law. This is the issue at the heart of the impeachment inquiry concerning President Clinton.

(2) Rule of law requires a means of judging the law against some set of relatively absolute standards. The standard may be a Constitution, as in the United States, or Precedent as in England, or Codices as in many nations, or even a Religious Codex. But if a Creator God exists -- Who thereby constitutes "law above law" -- He will judge our actions against His absolutes and not the absolutes which we create from our minds and put into our laws. Therefore, I choose to test all law and legal process against what I find in the Bible, and to make my proposals from Biblical principles.

(3) The speed of legal change in a society must be under some form of restraint to prevent popular passion from sweeping rule of law away. That is, legislation must be hard to enact, not easy. In my opinion, that was the genius of the form of the American government. By this I mean: separation of powers, balance of powers, staggered elections to different offices for different periods of time, and an independent and autonomous judiciary.

(4) There must be a process by which the law -- a dead, black-letter thing -- is brought to life by application to people, facts, and events. After all, written, law can only provide a guideline for behavior and create a fear of punishment which may make the person obey the law. By itself it does nothing about the law-breaker. So to rule, law must have a process of application, and this process of law may be more important than the black-letter written words of law.

(5) Rule of law requires the existence of judges who are independent and autonomous from the political sector of society. There are many mechanisms by which judges may be selected -- and the mechanism chosen may increase the danger of the non-existence of rule of law even in the face of large amounts of written law.

(6) Rule of law requires a people who are:

willing to live under and obey all just laws

willing to become educated in principles of rule of law, law-making, and

government

willing to participate in making and enforcing law

willing to make the law work through use of the legal and judicial

processes

Of all of these, the first -- willingness to live under the law -- is the most important. One result of totalitarianism is that it gives no law to the people which may be either used or predicted. To survive, the people are forced to create mechanisms outside the law. They become outlaws. As the potential for freedom arises, and the possibility of rule of law arises, they must give up their life outside the law and move to live under the law. And they must do this before rule of law has developed or rule of law will likely not develop. That frightens people, and they resist the commitment.

(7) Rule of law must allow me the freedom to emigrate from a society when I determine its laws are repressive and are not about to change. The Berlin Wall, more clearly than anything else, declared the non-existence of rule of law in the former Soviet Union.

Having said so much, I now move to the issue of the 1997 Russian legislation concerning religion as an indicator of the degree to which rule of law does or does not exist in Russia. First, six general comments.

(1) To the extent that any organized religion is seen to have, as an institution, a hand in the preparation of law, that institution will suffer in its spiritual appearance before the people. In the U.S. today, something referred to as the "religious right" has become sufficiently cohesive as to be seen as an entity -- a loosely knit organization. It is perceived to be seeking to take the power of government to use for protection of itself and/or to restore rights deemed to have been lost or diminished. As the movement has become more visible, at least two other things have become noticeable:

First, an increased fractionalization of the total Christian community -- now over political agendas and individual political stances -- adding to the fractionalization long existent in denominationalism.

Second, an increased repelling of people away from Christianity, Christ, and His church. The essence of the Gospel message, and the life-in-Christ to which the Christian is called, when contrasted with a political movement of Christians, seems to lose its ability to be heard.

(2) I believe portions of the Russian law on Religion are unconstitutional under the Russian Constitution and, even if constitutional, reflect an improper limitation upon human behavior under the standards of God; it is morally wrong in some respects.

(3) I do not know the degree of independence and autonomy of the judiciary of Russia, or their level of competence in constitutional theory and practice. Nor do I know the level of legal acumen of the Russian people, the level of education of their lawyers, nor the level at which people or lawyers will conquer an ingrained fear of openly confronting government. All of these factors will influence the degree to which religious liberty is or is not subjected to interference by the Russian authorities under the color of the specific legislation.

(4) Enforcement of legislation may bear little resemblance to the written legislation, and legislation may even be totally ignored by those commanded to enforce it. These factors will also impact the effect of this legislation upon religious freedom in Russia.

(5) What happens in Moscow or St. Petersburg may look very different than what happens in a hamlet in the middle of Siberia. But the same could be said as to the doing of the law in the U.S.

(6) So, let us assume the worse: that the Russian Constitutional Court find the law Constitutional, and strictly and rigorously applies it according to its black-letter language.

In such a situation, in my opinion, rule of law could exist generally in Russia, but would be failing in the specific area of exercising one's religious beliefs. But, please remember that man's law will always, at some level, fail in the specifics. That is why Proverbs 29:26 says: "You may seek the favor of a Ruler, but justice for man comes only from the Lord." And thus I can still chose to respect the law and those who labor in it; I do not have to lose peace by its shortcomings.

It leaves me as I was -- commanded to love God, to love and honor my neighbor, and to grant respect to those in authority (including the new law on religious freedom which is itself an authority). [WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE IS NO LAW?]

As I exercise my rights and responsibilities under God, I may or may not come into open conflict with the law and authorities of man. [SOME THOUGHTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS] If I do, then I behave in that situation as God directs (and He has given direction for such situations). But, remember, if I do not exercise my rights and responsibilities under God, then I sin -- I become unrighteous.

I may also involve myself in the political processes whereby law and rule of law are daily created, worked out, and challenged. God gives me guidance for working in such situations -- and tells me not to declare the results of my secular labors as sacred. But if I do this, I must first lay aside any robes of position which I may hold in the Church. I must go as a representative of Christ, and not as a representative of a denomination.

Only in light of all I have said am I finally willing to comment on where I see the Russian legislation working a denial of rights.

The principle denial is in the area of corporate legal rights for a religious group. I am not being targeted for what I believe, what I speak, or even what I do. Rather I am being limited basically in the manner in which I practice my belief in a group setting.

I find no Biblical command to own and set aside property for religious purposes, nor to gather together in groups of such a size that I need to rent a large facility, nor to cease paying taxes to the State because the State is acting preferentially towards one or more religions. So while I believe these limitations are ethically and legally wrong, I do not see them as limiting my spiritually motivated actions. Having the right starting attitude, I can seek to change the law but without anger or outrage at the existing law or any new form of that law -- God remains my source of justice.

As another example, the Russian law says that a religious organization, to register, must: "state information on its basic creed and related practices, including the history of how the religion arose and a history of said religion." It must also give "the forms and methods of its activities, its attitudes towards the family and marriage, education, the health of its followers, restrictions on the organization's members and clergy as regards their rights and duties as citizens." Now I might get very upset about this law, or I might see it as an opportunity to, as told in I Peter 3:15: "Never be ashamed to give an account of the hope which is within you, yet with gentleness and respect". I can see this as an opportunity to give a testimony to the ruler -- and who knows what God may do with such a testimony.

I do find a Biblical command to speak to others about God and His Christ. I do not find a command to do this in a public arena. Again, I believe it ethically and legally wrong to limit or exclude religious speech in the open, or in places where ideas are regularly shared (such as the educational institutions). But I can honor the limitation while working to change the law, and while remaining free from anger and bitterness. But to the extent the law would limit common speaking to others, then I must, respectfully and peaceably, violate the law. And speaking, in my opinion, must include the publication of my thoughts in writing, and distribution to others -- although it need not require a right to own a store in which to sell the materials or even the right to sell them at all. For example, if the law is interpreted to prevent me from handing this sheet of paper to a friend as a means of conversation concerning God and Christ, then I must respectfully violate the law.

In conclusion, what am I trying to say?

Even if this law is declared Constitutional, and is being strictly and rigorously applied, I am not entitled, before God, to alter my required behavior because of fear of what may happen to me. I do not emigrate. Instead, I love and honor God, love my neighbor, and grant respect to the governing authorities. For all I know, I will win my ethical and legal case if and when I am brought to the Court. Or God may open the mouth of the lion, cool the flames of the furnace, or tear down the prison walls. Or I may be persecuted, even killed.

The future is uncertain. I prefer to face it having been, as best I can, righteous before God rather than denying responsibilities He places upon me, and hiding in fear.

Next in this series is Thoughts on Legislation Stating Morality v Legislation Penalizing Immorality.