There is a lot of discussion these days about the supposed superiority of the ‘Christian’ West on Muslim (and other world faiths) societies in terms of religious freedom, as well as a lot of ignorance concerning the ambivalent and slow development of this concept in Christian societies.
In the article quoted below, Dr. Robert A. Hunt, an expert on Contemporary Muslim societies and movements, Muslim-Christian relations, inter-religious relations as well as inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue, brings us with our feet on the ground and advises us, implicitly, to approach this matter with much more caution, humility and patience towards others, avoiding to impose on them, against their will (by force, or otherwise) our worldviews, as superior as they may be.
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Religious Freedom and Religious Responsibility
When Christians think about Islam and the Muslim world one of the most common issues on their mind is the question of freedom of religion. In the popular mind the United States, and by extension Christianity, allows each person to freely choose and practice his or her own religious faith. Islam, by contrast, is believed to constrain freedom of religion because it both limits the freedom of non-Muslims in Muslim lands and outlaws conversion from Islam to other religions. This seem straight forward, but perhaps we need to get some perspective.
The Christian Bible pretty clearly teaches that all humans possess the freedom to choose which God they will worship. And because they possess that freedom they are encouraged to use it to make the right choice. This means in the Old Testament that humans are taught to choose the living creator God, Yahweh, and to reject idolatry in every form. In the New Testament this means choosing to follow Jesus Christ (who is the true living God) and rejecting both idolatry and every lesser spiritual power. What makes the New Testament context unique is that those who are choosing to follow Jesus Christ must also reject the civil religion of the Roman Empire because that entails worship of a lesser god. But, as Paul argues, Rome should allow this since Christians can both follow Christ and be loyal citizens of Rome. Unfortunately a number of Roman emperors disagreed. They didn’t believe that anyone could both be a loyal citizen of Rome and reject participation in the Roman civil religious practices.
Did things change when Rome became a Christian empire? Yes and no. Roman governments had always been worried about having their citizens engaged in religious cults that endangered the empire. They had not particularly cared about whether those cults endangered the souls of their followers. The Christian empire of Constantine and his successors was both worried about political disloyalty and felt responsible for the souls of it citizens. Under the burden of these responsibilities (for empire and human souls) it denied freedom of religion. Instead the Christian government tried to insure that people made the right choices. It didn’t deny the Bible’s teaching that people were free to choose. It simply believed that it was responsible to constrain those choices for the good of the empire and individual souls. And the Christian church agreed, and indeed encouraged the imperial government to keep people from making the wrong choice and in many cases to force them (if they were not Christian) to make the right choice. In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet the king says “compel them to come in” and Christians interpreted this to mean that Christian kings could compel non-Christians to enter the faith and thus save their souls.
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Dr. Robert A Hunt is the Director of Global Theological Education at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Dr. Hunt is an authority on Southeast Asian Christianity, Contemporary Muslim societies and movements, Muslim-Christian relations, inter-religious relations as well as inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue. Read more about him HERE.