To judge by couple of recently issued ecumenical creeds, the idea of a generic religious right of free expression seems to be popular among elite Evangelical and Catholic opinion.
According to the "Mania Manifesto" (1989), which represents the John Stott and Billy Graham wing of Evangelicalism, "Christians earnestly desire freedom of religion for all people, not just freedom for Christianity. In predominantly Christian countries, Christians are at the forefront of those who demand freedom for religious minorities. In predominantly non-Christian countries, therefore, Christians are asking for themselves no more than they demand for others in similar circumstances. The freedom to "profess, practice and propagate" religion, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could and should surely be a reciprocally granted right."
And according to "The Gift of Salvation" (1997), which is an interfaith statement by some big wigs in Evangelicalism and Catholicism, "we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God, and must be protected also in civil law."
I don't know how widespread this sentiment is, but given the prevalence of the bandwagon mentality it so many churches, it calls for some comment.
1. In order of importance, the first thing to be said is that both assertions are conspicuous for their absence of any express Scriptural support.
That does not, of course, mean that the assertion is necessarily incapable of exegetical backing. But both documents annex prooftexts to other assertions, so the absence here pretty glaring.
2. Although the Bible has a great deal to say about personal, social, and religious ethics, it has nothing to say about human rights or religious rights in general. Rather, it talks about the right way to worship God, the right way to conduct yourself, and the right way to treat your neighbor.
3. One of the problems with framing ethics in terms of human rights, or more specific versions thereof, is that it sets up a potential tension, frequently realized in practice, between "doing" right and "having" a right. And this, in turn, leads logically and oftentimes in practice to the moral oxymoron of a right to do wrong. For this there can be no Scriptural warrant whatsoever.
4. To my knowledge, the doctrine of natural rights in a political construct of the Enlightenment. As such, it has no basis in the tradition of any major religion. That being so, why is a political doctrine being invoked in the defense of a religion (or religious) which has no such doctrine in its own defense?
5. One wonders how the signatories would try to square their assertion with the Mosaic theocracy. Were the Baal-worshipers entitled to full freedom of expression?
6. I suppose a dispensational distinction would be drawn. Right or wrong, such a distinction needs to be argued, and not asserted.
7. One of the limitations of tolerance is that it demands reciprocity to work. And one of the reasons that Israel had to wage war against the Canaanites was because the Canaanites were unwilling to accept a policy of peaceful coexistence. And I can't see that covenantal discontinuities have invalidated that very practical problem in the world today. Certainly the forces of Hindu nationalism and Muslim nationalism afford no counterexample.
8. Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede (as I do not), a radical disparity between the Testaments at this point, it's hard to see how the NT affords any support for such a sweeping claim. Islam, for instance, prohibits Christian evangelism and Christian conversion on pain of death. India and Tibet are hardly more tolerant on this score. Other examples could be multiplied.
9. In modern times, Islam has made a cynical use of democratic freedoms as a loophole to deny democratic freedoms. It plays the system to subvert the system. It uses liberty in the short term as a pretext to deny the liberty of others in the long-term.
I see no reason why I should defend someone else's freedom to deprive me of my own. Why should I support those who oppose me? Why should I hand them a sword to slay me with? This is softheaded and foolhardy. Better to take away their freedom than wait for them to take away my own.
10. At a bare minimum, why should Christianity fight for Muslims—or Hindus, or Buddhists? Let the Muslims fight their own battles. Let every faith fight for its own rights, for the opposing faith will not return the favor. Of that you may be assured.
11. At a maximum, would should give serious thought to Samuel Rutherford's policy: "The question is not whether religion can be enforced upon men by the magistrate by dint and violence of the sword…religion cannot be compelled, nor can mercy and justice and love to our neighbor…be more compelled than faith in Christ.
Religion is taken two ways: for the inward and outward acts of religion as seen both by God and man…Christians ought not with force of sword, compel Jews, nor Jews or Pagans compel Christians to be of their religion.
The sword is no means of God to force men positively to external worship or performances. But the sword is a means negatively to punish acts of false worship in those that are under the Christian magistrate and profess Christian religion, insofar as these acts are destructive to the souls of those in a Christian society.
The magistrate does not command these outward performances as service to God, but rather, forbids the omission of them as destructive to man," A Free Disputation (London 1649), 50-51.