T. S. Eliot wrote a lot of seriously layered poetry. Anyone who takes the merest peek at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a 1915 paeon to angst, knows this—even if the poet himself claimed to not recognize most of what others dredged up. So I’ll happily quote from him, sure that I’m in good company.

I can empathize with the ennui that went into the line “in the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.” This may be the cliché of the superficial—but it follows on from the “overwhelming question” that haunts the entire poem.

At the very end we come back to the question. “And would it have been worth it, after all, after the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

“Would it have been worthwhile, to have bitten off the matter with a smile, to have squeezed the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question. . . If one, settling a pillow by her head, should say, ‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

Let’s insert religious liberty here as the overwhelming question. Not a trivial one, you must agree. It’s been quantified lately by the Pew Forum on Religion that as many as 70 percent of the world’s people live under severe restrictions to religious liberty. How is it that we don’t hear more about this?

Scheherazade fluffs the pillow and prepares to tell another tale: it’s about religious liberty, but it’s a different viewpoint every night.

I have thought long and hard about religious liberty, and it has finally hit me that this topic means so many different things to so many different people.

Naturally we are all for religious liberty. I never yet met anyone who opposed it. Easy to say in the United States, a land that inherited the Declaration of Independence and a fine Constitution, complete with a First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty. But surprisingly easy for others to say in some rather dystopian environments. The Soviet Union may have been dedicated to a secular paradise and motivated in its treatment of religionists by Marx’s dour quip that religion was the opiate of the masses. Still, in deference to those masses the Soviets long gave a legal guarantee to “freedom of worship”: sadly, honored more in the breach, however. Years ago in Myanmar I remember the reassuring promises of religious freedom repeated to us by the minister of religion—even as a platoon of soldiers hovered in front of our Seventh-day Adventist headquarters in Rangoon and others harassed and brutalized religious minorities like the Muslim Rohingyas.

I’ve come to think that part of the problem in gaining true religious freedom for the 70 percent who don’t have it is that it is so poorly defined. People say they are for religious liberty, but they are not talking about the same thing.

In the United States much religious liberty talk centers on the First Amendment and whether the matter is seen from a free exercise or establishment point of view. I sometimes think this both disguises another agenda or reveals a limited view of the topic itself.

Separation of church and state, the goal of the anti-establishment intent of the First Amendment was both the product of the Reformation and the rational humanism that accompanied it. It was an applied lesson in historical awareness. The horrors of the middle ages, the Inquisition, the Dark Ages, were particularly enabled when church and state were joined. It boggles my mind today to hear well-meaning religionists speak of the “unfortunate” wall, going on to say that it was intended only to restrain the state. These are people with little sense of history. They have also forgotten that this separation is not religious freedom—it was only intended to create an open arena for it to flourish.

Recently I heard a well-placed leader of a major religion in the U.S.A. say that all the talk of individual civil rights is impeding the prerogatives of the mainline churches. Such logic lay behind the imprisonment of independent preacher John Bunyan in sixteenth century England for his contrarian views and lack of a license to preach. Such views in Germany led Lutheran, Catholic, and other mainline members to think the detainment of trade unionists, Communists, and other morally suspect groups actually strengthened their moral voice.

This magazine treated on the strange bifurcation that was revealed in public statements by officials who substituted “freedom of worship” for “freedom of religion.” The talk has died down, but I think many are confused on the difference. No regime or society is threatened or changed by restricting people of faith to worship by themselves in catacombs or quiet structures on the periphery of commerce. Freedom of religion is letting faith have its way with society through free exchange of ideas and allowance of the right of religion to all—even those views the majority find abhorrent.

I stopped by a major bookstore the other day and noted a new book by someone recently noised about as a possible presidential contender. Somehow the page opened to his views on religious freedom, and I almost recoiled from what I read. Yes, religious freedom is important he proclaimed—and I mentally weighed whether this was his voice or a ghostwriter’s—but we need less accommodation and more tolerance!! But the application of the Constitution requires that all be accommodated for their faith. And those of us with a sense of history and knowledge of the worldwide struggle for true religious freedom know that tolerance is the poor halfway house to persecution. It implies no respect, but a grudging allowance that can be withdrawn.

It has often been said that the greatest threat to religious freedom today is secularism. That is not so. Secularism is a great threat to religion—to the structures of religion and its prerogatives of power in society. But not so much threat to religious faith and practice if it is kept alive and dynamic. Or put another way, a lot of the posturing in our society is by religious special interests occupied with political power. And that has little to do with true religious liberty.

The overwhelming question? Why, I think it comes back to What is religious liberty? That question has everything to do with what is religion itself. A society unclear on that can hardly be expected to allow it to others or for the minority within its midst.

I think religious liberty is not derived from humanity but is God-given and God-directed. It must be nourished on respect for the transcendent and an awareness that we humans are fellow creatures of a Creator. Without this dynamic I fear that even constitutions fade in meaning, international covenants become pointless and that the very term religious liberty can in Orwellian doublespeak eventually come to mean its opposite.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."