Seventh-day Adventist world church President Ted N. C. Wilson today challenged believers to grasp the opportunities for open discourse that a secular state preserves.
His comments came during a keynote address to the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom. The gathering has drawn hundreds of religious liberty advocates, government officials, scholars and legal experts to the Dominican Republic this week to examine the influence of secularism on religious expression.
Although acknowledging the inevitable conflict between the values of believers and that of secular culture, Wilson said, “We have to accept this tension as part of a free society. We have to accept the challenges and find appropriate responses, through God’s leading.”
Wilson drew a distinction between “radical” or “extreme” secularism—which seeks to exclude religion from the public sphere—and “secular governance,” which remains neutral toward religions and protects the religious freedom rights of minorities.
“If intolerant and ideological secularism attacks our religious values, we have to stand up for them with conviction,” he said. Wilson cited examples of where secularism has been taken too far, including attempts to prohibit Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to public school, or to mandate the provision of abortions by institutions that reject the practice as a matter of conscience.
“It’s taken too far when the mention of creation of the world is totally forbidden in the public schools or when Christian agencies for adoption of children are threatened to lose their legal recognition, if they refuse to list as potential parents same sex couples,” he said.
However, Wilson also said that people of faith should reject the temptation to see a “religious state” as an acceptable alternative to secular governance. “If the state gives one religion a privileged legal position, no equality is possible and life becomes a nightmare for those who are different,” he said.
“Which type of society is it that condemns to death someone for apostasy because they have changed religions?” he asked. “Is that a secularized or religious society?”
Wilson said that Adventism’s strong heritage of religious freedom activism and its support for state neutrality between religions has firm biblical foundations, and that Adventists “feel very close to believers who have stood for religious freedom during thousands of years of restrictions and persecution.”
He said his life-long passion for promoting religious liberty has its roots in memories of his father, Neal Wilson—a former world church leader—who often spent hours with government officials explaining the value of freedom of conscience.
“We need to instill in young people the love for preserving religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” said Wilson. “Let us encourage them to join in this vitally important pursuit of freedom of conscience for all.”