The Global Charter of Conscience was launched at the European Parliament in Brussels in June 2012. It was largely drafted by Christian writer Os Guinness but it is not a Christian project per se. It is aimed at the good of all and has had wide support. The early drafts were reviewed by more than fifty academic experts from perspectives such as law, religion, and politics. Their religious backgrounds were similarly diverse. At the launch, Dr. Heiner Bielefelt, the UN Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, gave a passionate speech in support.

In this article, LGA Editor David Taylor (DT) interviews Os Guinness (IOG) about the charter, its genesis, and his hopes for its impact and how Christian leaders will use it.

DT: What was the impetus and origin of the Charter?

IOG: Many years ago, I was privileged to help draft the Williamsburg Charter, which was a celebration and reaffirmation of the Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  That, however, was limited to America.  The Global Charter came out of more recent discussions at the EastWest Institute in New York as to what might benefit the whole world in the global era.

DT: What are the main points of the Charter?

IOG: It would be impossible to summarize the twenty-nine articles in the Charter.  But essentially they are a reaffirmation and expansion of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in light of all the current controversies over religion and public life.  For example, in light of certain misguided Muslim attempts to pass blasphemy laws, the Charter stresses that freedom of conscience is a protection for believers.  It does not protect beliefs.

DT:  What are the problems the Charter seeks to address?

IOG: Article 18 is generally recognized to be the most contested and embattled of the rights enumerated in the UDHR.  With the global resurgence of religion and the countering pressure of an aggressive secularism among the educated elites, religion, religious freedom, and especially the place of religion in public life have all become contentious and controversial in many countries — including the United States where religious freedom was once pioneered and developed systematically.  Violations of religious freedom are mounting, as recent Pew Reports show.

There is a paradox underlying religious freedom today.  On the one hand, research shows that there are indisputable social, political and economic benefits for societies that recognize and respect the place of religious freedom for all.  On the other hand, three quarters of the world’s peoples are in countries where there are high restrictions on religious freedom (as the Pew reports show).

These restrictions have different sources – sometimes it is government repression as in China and Iran; sometimes it is sectarian conflict as with the Boko Haram in Nigeria; and sometimes it is the tension and conflicts of Western culture warring – but the result is a humanitarian and political crisis that cries out for attention and resolution.

DT: Please explain the Charter’s vision of humanity “living with our deepest differences.”

IOG: How we live with our deepest differences sounds abstract, compared with economic crises, terrorism, global poverty, and so on.  But in fact it underlies so many of the other problems in the world, and solving it will be a key to the human future.

If you look at the world and all the clashes that concern religion and public life, what you see are two dueling visions or models of religion and public life:

  • On one side, there are varieties of the ‘sacred public square’, in which some religion or another is preferred or established.  Some are mild versions, such as the Church of England, and some are harsh, such as the Republic of Iran.
  • On the other side, there are varieties of the ‘naked public square’, in which all religions are excluded, so that religion is seen as inviolably private and the public square as inviolably secular.  Again, there are milder versions, such as France’s laïcité, and harsher versions, such as China and North Korea’s repression of religious groups and minorities.

Both these models deny religious freedom in various ways, and over against them the vision of the Global Charter is to expand the possibility of a third position: the ‘civil public square’:

  • This a vision of public life in which people of all faiths, religious and secularist, are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, but within a clearly understood agreement of what is just and free for all other citizens too.
  • Thus a right for a Christian is a right for a Hindu, and a right for a Muslim, an atheist, and every faith within a country.  In short, a right for one citizen is a right for another, and a responsibility for both.

DT: Isn’t civility a rather vague concept that, like tolerance, may well lead to indifference toward truth and moral differences?

IOG: The notion of civility certainly needs to be restored today. Civility is not niceness, or dinner party manners.  It does not assume a lowest-common-denominator approach or a compromising interfaith dialogue, and it has to be distinguished from a sloppy tolerance.

Properly understood, civility is a tough-minded classical virtue and a duty for citizens of any diverse community that would encourage everyone to be true to what they believe, and yet know how to negotiate their differences with others respectfully and peacefully.  The model of a civil public square is the only one that allows citizens to be true to their faith without compromise, yet live with others without conflict and violence.

DT: What reception has it received since the launch?

IOG: Wherever the Global Charter has gone, the reception has been warm. But I am under no delusions.  As with many issues today, a missing element is national and international leadership.  On issues such as this, national leadership has been conspicuous by its absence.  In a day when religion is disdained, and religious freedom is discounted, educated Western leadership is sadly tone deaf and disengaged.

For anyone who understands the issues, it is not simply a matter of defending ourselves (national security, fighting for the persecuted, and so on). It is also a matter of ordering our societies, and even of revitalizing them.  At a time when the new atheists are saying that religion “poisons everything,” we need to help people to see the multiple dimensions of the importance of the issue for the good of all.

DT: What goals would you like the Charter to achieve?

IOG: The Charter itself holds out the hope that it will prove to be a beacon, a benchmark, and a blueprint, and I hope and pray that the Charter will have some very practical results:

  • First, that it will contribute to a renewed understanding of Article 18 and the importance of religious freedom to the world.
  • Second, that it will open a wider Western discussion of the significance of a civil public square, and of forgotten issues such the place of civility.
  • Third, that it will be a beacon for the oppressed and those who fight for them around the world.

It is only a first step.  It needs to be implemented in national and international law; and the habits of people’s hearts need  to be cultivated through education and transmission to ensure that respect for rights and responsibilities is handed on from generation to generation.

DT: What impact might the Charter have on Western aid to developing countries?

IOG: We are seeing a series of mounting violations of religious freedom in the West – health care mandates that violate conscience, de-recognition of Christian groups that refuse to allow ‘all-comers’ in their leadership, and the threat to cut the funding for religious groups that cannot agree with the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) agenda when dealing with relief and development around the world.  Many of these are unwitting violations of religious freedom by liberals in the name of equality and other noble intentions.

What liberal activists forget is that such violations are not just an attack on religious freedom, but on civil society.  For as the history of philanthropy shows, religious freedom is an essential key to a thriving civil society.

Meanwhile Christian organizations should remember that he who pays the piper calls the tune; so they must be careful when they ask for government money.

DT: Expand on the idea of a ‘cosmopolitan public square’ as a stepping stone to global governance.

IOG: If globalization is understood as the expansion of human interconnectedness to a truly global level, then the core driver is information technology, and in particular the ‘3 S’ forces: speed, scale and simultaneity.  Thus information technology is the most nearly global force in the world, followed at some distance by market capitalism and then by cultural globalization.

This means that, for better or worse, political globalization is a considerable way behind, but must catch up if the world is to govern itself wisely.  The challenge then is how to achieve ‘global governance’ without a single world government.  For that to happen, global governance must know how to build in a strong place for diversity as a positive and not a destructive force; and for that to happen in turn, the world must learn how to live with its deepest differences – especially when they concern matters of religion and ideology in public life.  Getting religious freedom right is therefore a vital key to our human future.

DT: It sounds as if you have a cookie cutter approach in mind.

IOG: Emphatically not!  I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach.  Each country has its own history and its own values, and therefore has the freedom to choose and build its own settlement.  Any cookie cutter approach would be disastrous and impossible.

Rather, what I would propose is that each country chooses its own settlement, but within it also works to expand the sphere of religious freedom for all in line with common universal rights and principles.  Thus we could assess a society and say that it is more free or less free according to the degree to which that sphere of religious freedom for all is respected and maintained.

DT: How would you recommend Christian leaders to take up and use the Charter?

IOG: It is a sobering and often unacknowledged fact that getting religious freedom wrong has cost the Church of Jesus Christ a prohibitive price.  The major reason for European secularity is the corruption and oppression of state churches in the past, a tragedy we have still not lived down.  Equally, the sad and massive defection of young Christians from the faith in the U.S. currently is mostly due to the ugliness and unwisdom of the Christian right in the past generation.

It is therefore in our interests, as well as a matter of principle, to articulate and demonstrate a better way forward – both for ourselves and for the world.  Certain Christian activists, for example, have fallen foul of the comment that “Evangelicals talk of justice, but what they really mean is ‘just us.’”  Rather than simply defending us and our rights, the Charter reminds people that each of our rights are protected best when the rights of all are protected, especially the rights of the smallest or the most unfashionable community.

From 17th century Protestant theologian Roger Williams onwards, evangelicals have a shining record of standing for religious freedom, but more recently we have not always been on the side of the angels.  It is time to rediscover the full significance of religious freedom for all, and so not only stand for the persecuted and oppressed today, but show a way forward for the world tomorrow, and thus bring honour and not shame to the name of our Lord.

Os Guinness is the great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer. Os was born in China where both his parents and grandparents were medical missionaries. A survivor of the Henan famine of 1943, he was a witness to the climax of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and was expelled with many other foreigners in 1951. He returned to Europe where he was educated in England, completing his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his DPhil in the social sciences at Oriel College, Oxford. Os has written or edited thirty books on a wide range of themes, including The American Hour, Time for Truth, The Call, Invitation to the Classics, Long Journey Home, Unspeakable, and A Case for Civility. His latest book is A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, published by InterVarsity Press (2012). He lives with his wife Jenny in McLean, Virginia.

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