Article 8 of the new Iraqi constitution reads: “Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam…may be enacted…. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.”
These are bold statements for an Islamic country in the heart of the Arab world. Only time will tell how, and even whether, this provision for freedom of religion will be implemented.
Often, religious freedom in Islamic lands is very different than in other parts of the world. Freedom is granted to religious communities rather than to individual citizens. This means that existing Christian, Jewish, or Hindu groups (for example) are allowed to own property, conduct services and teach their religion to the children. It does not, however, allow these other religions to preach or evangelize publicly outside of their religious compounds. Nor does it allow people to forsake one faith for another, what we call the right of conversion.
In many Islamic lands, a Muslim who seeks to convert is accused of apostasy, blasphemy or even treason against the state. They are subject to arrest, torture and punishment. Who knows whether this will happen in Iraq? If it does, who knows whether anyone outside the country will find out about it?
Religious freedom does not exist fully and adequately unless it includes the freedom to evangelize and also the freedom to convert.
On these matters, Islam is learning the lessons that Christianity learned many years ago: successful states do not require official religions, and democracy can flourish only when there is full freedom to convince and convert.
Europeans are working on their own constitution, and the debate there is whether to put the word “God” in the document. Christian leaders led by the Vatican are clamoring for at least a footnote attesting to the historic role of Christianity in shaping the culture and values of Europe. So far, no deal.
Europe had enough of religious wars several centuries ago. Out of their experience of Christian-killing-Christian emerged the idea of the separation of church and state. Even though some nations continued to pamper particular state churches (in Germany, Lutheran; in England, Anglican; etc.) the right to believe or not to believe has been highly valued and the governments have sought to provide broad freedom of religion.
Now they are being tested: Muslims women in Europe want to wear their distinctive Islamic head scarf, the hajib. They want to wear it in public and at school.
Officials fear such overt religious apparel, or so they say. What they really fear, I think, is the faith and practice of Islam.
They have reason to fear.
Much of Islam is at war with the Christian idea of separation of church and state, largely because it is a Christian idea, one that has allowed the christianized West to be sabotaged by materialism, militarism and immorality. Or so many Muslims think.
Which is what many Christians in America also think. This is why there is such a fuss about commandments in the courtroom. Even though there is no reference to God in our Constitution and it took an amendment some years after ratification to assert the freedom of religion.
Now our Supreme Court must decide if “In God we Trust” can stay on our money and “One nation under God” can stay in our pledge.
The irony is this: only if the defenders of these phrases can demonstrate that they serve a purely secular purpose will they be allowed to remain on the money and in the pledge.
Which is just one of the many complex issues that surround this matter of religion and government. Not only here, but in Europe and also in Iraq.
Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and theologian living in Lexington, Ky.