Tue | Aug 14, 2018

Religious liberty and the secular state

Published:Sunday | January 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer Worshippers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church gather in Half-Way Tree, St Andrew, during a Metro Mission 14 road march and concert. SDAs have long highlighted the Sabbath keepers' vulnerability to victimisation, which, according to Ian Boyne, would be less likely in a secular state.

Yesterday, Seventh-day Adventists crammed the National Arena with their major Religious Liberty Festival featuring high-level international speakers and representatives of the broader local religious community. It was a celebration of Jamaica's enviable history of religious freedom and tolerance.

The Adventists have been particularly passionate about religious liberty for very pragmatic reasons, aside from their unquestioned philosophical and theological commitment to its ideal. They are a minority religious group that fears its unorthodox acceptance of Saturday worship could lead to religious persecution and ostracism. (Indeed, in their prophetic teaching, they envision orthodox Christians bitterly persecuting them following the proclamation of an enforced Sunday law.)

Adventists are staunch advocates of religious liberty, often citing Roman Catholic persecution of so-called heretics in former times and warning that "Rome has not really changed". Their promotion of religious liberty, which fits in well with the Western world's privileging of human rights and liberal democracy, suits both their peculiar eschatology and serves as consciousness-raising against any totalitarian impulses Roman Catholics and Protestant theonomists might have.

But whatever are the sectarian beliefs of Adventists and others who might harbour conspiracy theories about Rome or 'Christendom' (a favourite term of the Jehovah's Witnesses), everyone has reasons to be concerned about notions of a Christian state. Is Jamaica a Christian country? Should it be in the sense of its being a Christian state? Is it preferable to have a Christian state or a secular state? I say it is far better to have a secular state than a Christian state and that, in fact, the interests of Christians are better served by having a non-religious, secular State than one whose constitution is, effectively, the Bible obviously as interpreted and understood by those influencing the state.


The whole issue of jihadism and what is called Muslim extremism revolves around this notion that the state should be religious, not secular. ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaida detest the notion of a secular state. They say the state should obey the laws and dictates of Allah. There are Christians who feel equally passionately that the State should obey the laws of the Bible. Many Jamaican preachers would love to have the Jamaican Government rule according to the laws of the Bible. But which of those hundreds of laws should Jamaica follow?

Who gets to interpret for the rest of us and then impose his selective menu of laws? We know which laws the Adventists would impose if they were inclined to take the job of governing Jamaica. And that if the Jehovah's Witnesses were so inclined, there could be no blood bank and no national transfusion service. Some of the so-called sacred-names groups that insist on using the name Yahweh for God would shut down businesses and schools on Old Testament feast days, for according to them, those days are holy unto Yahweh and people are under a curse for not observing them.

A secular state protects the interests of all religious people, for religious people are deeply divided and can't agree on what their sacred texts say. So any set of them that get to influence the Government might be tempted to make life hard for those other religious persons who disagree. Talking about instituting biblical law in Jamaica, do you know the Old Testament has its own blasphemy law and that it prescribes death for those who blaspheme God's name, like Islam?

Leviticus 24:16 says: "Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly shall stone him ... ." What if some Christian nation believers decide that that is still binding today? And remember, there is a very small sectarian group that actually teaches that the title 'God' is pagan and represents blasphemy, for one should only use the Hebrew name for the Creator, which is Yahweh. So the whole Jamaican nation would be up for extinction if this group were to have state power and impose Old Testament law.

A Pew Research Center poll in 2011 showed that nearly half of the countries and territories in the world have laws that penalise blasphemy, apostasy or defamation, including of particular religions. The devout Middle Eastern states have severe blasphemy laws and laws that forbid people to change their religions. Would religious freedom in general not be better protected if those states were secular, favouring no particular religion?


Remember Europe was awash in blood in the 16th and 17th centuries because it had so many religious states Christian nations (states). There were frequent wars between states and civil wars within states because of religion. After approximately 13,000 French Protestants were massacred in Paris and other cities during St Bartholomew's Day celebrations in August 1572, Pope Gregory ordered a special celebratory Mass and had a medal to be struck to commemorate the glorious event!

But don't go blaming Catholics alone. After the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther supposedly restored God's truth after its trampling by Rome, Luther's disciples went about savagely persecuting and killing other Protestants who diverged from Lutheranism. Luther himself was a fierce anti-Semite who uttered obnoxious things about Jews.

America was the first secular state and has been a bastion of religious liberty. The kinds of liberties taken with Sabbath keepers in Jamaica, for example, and the blatant and vulgar way in which they are discriminated against here, with absolutely no protection or protest from unions, human-rights advocates or politicians, could never take place in America. There, Sabbath keepers routinely win court judgments against employers who fire them.

And the American case disproves the propaganda that a secular state is inimical to the growth of religion. America is the most religious industrialised country. And your rights as a Christian, Jew, Hindu and even Muslim are better protected there than anywhere else. Just last week, the Supreme Court handed down a judgment, Holt v Hobbs, upholding the right of a Muslim man to grow his beard in prison after that had been denied by prison authorities who got state court backing.

Prison authorities claimed that inmates could hide contraband in their beard and that growing a beard compromised prison security as inmates could change their appearance. The Supreme Court carefully considered the arguments of the prison authorities and the district court and rejected them on the grounds of religious liberty.

"The District Court erred by concluding that the grooming policy did not substantially burden the petitioner's religious exercise because he could practise his religion in other ways." The court had said prison authorities already allowed him his prayer rug, Islamic material, a religious adviser and allowed him to keep his religious holy days and follow his non-pork-eating Muslim diet.

The Supreme Court said that was not enough. Allow the man his half-inch beard he requested (just like how our secular state last week proposed allowing Rastas to grow their own herbs). In America, there is an expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into federal law by President Clinton, which gives exemptions to religious people on the grounds of their religious conscience. Many liberals and gay activists oppose this vehemently, saying it is a threat to statutes favouring gays and people who want abortion and contraception services.

America protects its religious citizens of the widest stripe more than any other nation on Earth because its constitution is expressly secular. Incidentally, a secular state is not synonymous with an atheistic state.

Communist states like Cuba must not be confused with secular states. In his just-released book (2014), The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can't Tell Us What to Do, prominent atheistic lawyer and philosopher, Ronald Lindsay, head of the US Council for Secular Humanism and The Center for Inquiry, notes, "Secular states have not only kept the religious peace, but, arguably, have been good for the preservation ... of religious belief." His is an excellent, irenic book that should appeal to well-thinking theists, showing why their best bet is a secular state, not a religious one. A religious state has always been a threat to religious freedom and tolerance. Another recently released book (2014) that amply demonstrates in an empirically rich way that secular societies are not necessarily immoral or dysfunctional is atheistic sociology professor, Phil Zuckerman's, Living the Secular Life: New Answer to Old Questions. In that book, he compares dysfunctional, religious Jamaica to flourishing and socially healthy Denmark. He gives a fascinating account of his friend who was stabbed up in a bar in Port Antonio on a visit here, comparing our medical services to what his mother-in-law received when she had a fall in Denmark.

It sounds good and noble to say Jamaica should be a Christian state, but its implications can be terrifying.

n Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.