Last Thursday, Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization on the grounds that they were an “extremist” organization.
It’s not completely clear what their precise violations were, but the state-owned TASS news agency reports that prosecutors cited Jehovah’s Witnesses for opposing blood transfusions, “controlling” their members, and “insisting on their own exclusiveness, which … contradicts the law on resistance to extremist activity.” A Law Library of Congress report explains the law that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were prosecuted under:
“Extremist activities as they are listed in the Extremism Law are subject to prosecution regardless of their consequences and the level of public danger. This allows for the application of restrictive measures to relatively insignificant offenses.”
Bipartisan Opposition to Extremist Religion
Russia’s decision has been condemned by many in the west. But in recent years, even in the west there have been many voices that call for more restriction of “extremist” religion. From some on the left there is support for expansive laws against “hate speech” that would criminalize any language deemed as hateful against given groups of people. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are accused of violating this kind of law by insisting on their own exclusive access to truth in a way that is “insulting” to other religions.
From some on the right, on the other hand, there is support for restrictions on “extremist” religion stemming from concerns about radical Islamic terrorism. In a speech last August, Donald Trump spoke against radical Islamic terrorism – but his remarks actually went beyond terrorism to condemn “radical Islam”:
Nor can we let the hateful ideology of Radical Islam – its oppression of women, gays, children, and nonbelievers – be allowed to reside or spread within our own countries.
Note that it is not the ideology of terrorism or violence that is being condemned here, but the ideology of “oppression.” The call is for restrictions on extremist religion.
So what’s the problem?
The case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia illustrates the problem with making laws against “extremist” religions – “extremism” is in the eye of the beholder, and any religion that is worth anything will appear as “extremist” to some people who oppose it. In short: if you want religious liberty at all, you have to tolerate religious extremism, even if you don’t like it.
But doesn’t that let extremists off the hook for hurting other people? This has been an objection to the concept of religious liberty since at least the seventeenth century, and it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what religious liberty entails. Religious liberty does not mean that people can break whatever laws they like in the name of religion. It means that actions that are allowable when done for non-religious reasons should also be legal when done for religious reasons or by a religious community.
So, for example, defending religious liberty does not mean that someone who fervently believes in human sacrifice ought to be free to kill and sacrifice someone – the laws against murder still stand. From John Locke’s 1689 “Letter Concerning Toleration”:
You will say, by this rule, if some congregations should have a mind to sacrifice infants… is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly? I answer: No. These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the worship of God, or in any religious meeting.
But, on the other hand, things that are legal in other circumstances ought to be legal for any religious congregation to do, even if they seem odd or “extreme”:
But, indeed, if any people congregated upon account of religion should be desirous to sacrifice a calf, I deny that that ought to be prohibited by a law. Meliboeus, whose calf it is, may lawfully kill his calf at home, and burn any part of it that he thinks fit. For no injury is thereby done to any one, no prejudice to another man’s goods. And for the same reason he may kill his calf also in a religious meeting. Whether the doing so be well-pleasing to God or no, it is their part to consider that do it. The part of the magistrate is only to take care that the commonwealth receive no prejudice, and that there be no injury done to any man, either in life or estate.
What can and what can’t be tolerated
Where I think people begin to feel uncomfortable about religious organizations and call for restrictions on them is when they sense that the organization controls its members. This is a valid and understandable concern. But again, whether someone is being “controlled” is a subjective judgment. To some hardened atheists, any religion at all looks like control. In the zeal to “free” believers, they might actually be trampling on something the believers have genuinely chosen. Every organization, including every religious organization, has standards and rules. If an organization threatens physical harm or involuntary financial punishment for those who violate those expectations, that’s a violation of the law – no one is allowed to threaten or enact those things against another person. That can justly be prosecuted.
But if the tools of enforcing those standards are within the realms of the law – inclusion or exclusion from the group, communication or lack thereof with an excommunicated member, etc. – then I think it does far more harm than good for a government to step in and try to regulate that religion. That’s true even when I think a religion really is harmful and oppressive (and I say this as someone deeply opposed to any kind of coercion in worship or religion). Once we say “extremist views will not be tolerated,” we set up government as an arbiter of what falls within the realm of acceptable faith. In effect, we set up a new state religion, and we lose religious liberty. In the U.S., I don’t think we’re anywhere near to that yet – but I don’t want to take any steps in that direction. I think the decision in Russia shows what can happen if we do.
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