As I’ve noted before, a part of my current studies includes an online forum in dialogue with other students and faculty. In that, the question was raised regarding “erosions of a Christian worldview” relative to cultural issues, and considering the nature of a free society in the United States in light of “the church that has voices that are difficult to reconcile with the notion of civil discourse.” In other words, how can we engage in dialogue from a sound theological and biblical basis, in the midst of hateful venom-spewing by those who claim, if not to represent us, then at least to be among our colleagues in Christ. Here’s where that took me:
Among the most foundational principles of the American experiment, the concept of religious liberty for any or all possible religions has always been imperfectly practiced, and perhaps even more loosely held than many would like to admit. Persons at the extremes of the faith spectrum, ironically, would seem to very nearly agree with one another on this issue. Those within certain theologically conservative traditions desire the freedom to practice their own religion, to the exclusion of all others. Though occupying a position at the farthest reaches on that spectrum, extremists within the civil libertarian camp, in fairness, only want to exclude one more religion than that.
But there seems to be, even in founding fathers who seem most thoroughly Christian in their worldviews, an intent to provide religious liberty without limitations. Some of these were Christians who believe in the exclusivity of their beliefs (e.g., John 14:6), and the importance of not just exposing, but proselytizing others to the gospel. Why, then, would they leave any potential for competition from other faith-systems, including the freedom to promote a freedom from religion? Their ideal, however imperfectly crafted and implemented, envisioned an open marketplace in which the free expression of ideas was guaranteed. Was that, perhaps, because they believed the gospel was the best of all possible ideas? Might they have seen a redemptive purpose in allowing as many as possible to flee repression elsewhere, allowing them to bring with them their own beliefs and practices? Could it be that they trusted God to bless the open proclamation and practice of the gospel that lovingly provided a safe haven for the millions who would follow?
Or are we expecting too much depth in the deliberations and decisions of the founding fathers? Paul Louis Metzger writes (in “Erosion: Christian Dominance in America, Not Freedom?” - http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2013/02/erosion-christian-dominance-in-america-not-freedom-2/) that “those fleeing persecution and establishing our democracy did not think long and hard enough about how to preserve the freedoms of others,” using Native Americans and the slave trade as examples. It seems probable to me, though, that they did, in fact, think these things through. There were (and still are) better choices available. But the economics of the pilgrimage to, refuge of, and secure survival within North America led to a prioritization of Euro-American interests over those of others, even over those of the gospel. They were not ignorant of the means by which the freedoms of others could be preserved. Whether from fear, or expedience, they chose not to do so. So, again, why?
Allowing the free and open exchange of ideas (and, more so, the respect of unfamiliar cultures that may appear, to one’s limited perspective, “uncivilized”) requires courage, knowing that human nature can often overcome any constitutional protections against potential reprisals or persecution in reaction to those ideas. Encouraging dialogue in which the gospel is open to challenge by competing worldviews requires confidence, knowing that we are all susceptible to the fear of losing our own inner debate regarding the efficacy of Christ’s work on our behalf. Being free to practice our own religious traditions requires consistency, accepting that our tendency to demand our own rights at the expense of others’ is a denial of the sacrificial, cruciform servanthood to which we are called.
The solution, therefore, is not to be found in silencing voices purporting to represent the Church in something other than “civil discourse,” but in engaging those voices, challenging their ideas, and appealing to their most central convictions regarding the sovereignty of God, the efficacy of the gospel, and the nature of our calling a Christian servants. Just as we should with any others whose beliefs or practices have yet to be conformed to following Jesus Christ.