by Michael SwainExecutive Director of FOR SA

On March 21st every year, South Africans celebrate Human Rights Day and in so doing we recognize the debt we owe to those who fought and suffered for the freedoms we enjoy.  In a sense, South Africa came late to the party because many of the human rights that form the foundation of our Constitutional democracy took centuries to develop and establish.  We need to set aside this day because, unless we highlight our freedoms, there is a tendency to forget that life has not always been like this.  Today, we can believe whatever our conscience dictates, speak freely and openly, move without constraints and associate with whomever we will.  We expect fair and impartial treatment and due process if ever we find ourselves on the wrong side of the law.  We equally expect full protection from anyone who attempts to prevent us from exercising our freedoms.  However, we must not forget that the very freedoms we enjoy were often bought at the highest price and, if we are not vigilant, we can be lulled into a false sense of security because unless we are prepared to actively promote and protect them, there is no absolute guarantee that they will remain.

Freedom of religion is arguably the most important freedom we have because it is a catch-all expression for a basket of basic human rights.  Freedom of belief, conscience and thought are essential to our ability to enjoy all the other freedoms, because everything begins in the realm of ideas before it translates into the material.  Freedom of expression, association and assembly are equally important consequential freedoms which allow us to live out our inner values in peace and without fear of hindrance or discrimination.  Many trace our modern day freedoms back to the Magna Carta, a document signed in 1215 in England when King John, pressured by church officials and English barons, reluctantly agreed to limit his powers.  It has been acclaimed as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.  However, few study further to understand that the rule by law, rule under God and religious liberty are all theological ideas with deep Biblical roots. Of the 63 rights established by the Magna Carta, religious liberty is mentioned both first and last in the list of the liberties that were granted to all free men.

As such, we should be deeply concerned when we witness the relentless assault on freedom of religion in our day, where truth and justice are being increasingly replaced by the new religion of political correctness propagated by those who often have a deep hatred of the absolutes of Biblical values and principles.  The reality is that unless we can appeal to an external absolute standard to confirm our rights as “unalienable”, they are essentially worthless.  Why?  Because any right awarded by man based upon relative secular values can be easily repudiated and revoked.  The battleground of these worldviews is primarily centered on freedom of religion since this is often perceived as a “soft target”.  The danger – as any builder or architect will confirm – is if you deliberately chip and dig away at the foundation of a building, sooner or later the whole structure will come crashing down.

Human rights are the antithesis of the current left wing liberal worldview, which pushes for absolute conformity to its view of political correctness and excoriates anyone or anything that expresses an individual or contrary opinion.  By contrast, human rights exist to protect the unpopular (and even the offensive!).  Unless we are prepared to defend a society where a broad diversity of views and opinions can be freely expressed, we will swiftly lose our right to call ourselves a democracy.  Or as Jon Qwelane’s lawyer rather eloquently put it, the only voices permitted will be those that express “views that are unashamedly politically correct and so mundane that they are incapable of producing critical debate and stimulating the kinds of self-inspection so vital to the democratic process.”

International trends are far from encouraging and in many countries like the UK and the USA, which used to be bastions of individual freedom, there is a growing tendency to shut down and muzzle any opinion or behaviour that conflicts with liberal and politically correct norms. In Norway, we recently witnessed the scandalous removal of children from their Christian parents by a largely unaccountable State agency (Barnevernet)  because officials were concerned that the parents’ strong Pentecostal Christian beliefs would harm their children.  In the USA and Ireland recently, there have been two cases against Christian owners of bakeries who declined respectively to use their creative gifts to provide a cake celebrating same-sex ‘marriage’ and to decorate one with a pro-LGBT propaganda message. In the case of Melissa and Aaron Klein, the media got wind of the situation.  The young couple who owned the Oregon-based bakery endured public protests outside their business and threats against their lives, and were subsequently ordered to pay $135 000 (R1.8-million) in damages. They were further ordered to refrain from speaking in a manner that would indicate a future intention to violate the non-discrimination law. In the Ashers Bakery case in Ireland, the court decided that even though the bakers did not know the sexual orientation of the person ordering the cake, by refusing to decorate the cake with the slogan “Support gay marriage”, they were nevertheless guilty of discriminating against an idea.

Last month in the UK, two Bible street preachers, Mike Overd and Michael Stockwell, were convicted of Public Order offences after a public prosecutor claimed that quoting parts of the King James Bible in the context of modern British society “must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”.  He argued that free speech must yield to the multicultural reality of modern Britain and that there was a clear threat to violence due to the words of the preachers and their implied criticism of Islam. He argued that “…to say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that [the preachers] are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”  The prosecutor’s view was upheld by the Bristol Magistrate’s Court, who awarded costs against the preachers amounting to over R30 000.  So although the basic right to freedom of religion and the related right of freedom of speech should support the preachers’ right to proclaim truth – and to have diverse opinions in the public forum where people can agreeing to disagree without harm or repercussions – it is increasingly apparent that truth today is regarded as the “new hate”!

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is aware that although our Constitution guarantees the establishment of these rights, Christianity is increasingly targeted by those who are determined to silence people of faith, using the courts, government commissions such as the SAHRC and CGE and legislation to carry out their agendas. This is not a simple legal skirmish. It is a battle for the soul of our nation. FOR SA has a single-minded and unwavering commitment to ensure that we can continue to live in a South Africa where all people are free to celebrate and live out their faith.

Let us remind ourselves on Human Rights Day that freedoms that are hard won can also be easily lost – unless we are prepared to defend them vigorously!

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is dedicated to protecting and preserving the freedoms and rights that the South African Constitution has granted to the faith community. You can help FOR SA protect our freedom by:

  • Praying for us as we defend this precious freedom before government and courts of law;
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