Religious Liberty amidst Religious Pluralism

I spent Sunday with the good folk of University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, MO. It is a strong ABC-CBF church, and annually the congregation hosts a Baptist Heritage Sunday. It was my privilege to preach in the Sunday morning worship service, and then in the afternoon I offered a lecture on “Competing Religious Liberties.” In a nation of growing religious pluralism, the constitutional right of religious liberty needs to apply to all. I then traced the political machinations in Myanmar and the impact for religious liberty of the Christian minority.

 

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As I pulled into my neighborhood last evening, I saw a spectacular firework display overhead. I tried to figure out what the celebration was about; the Chiefs did win yesterday, but this was a bit extravagant. I then remembered that it is the time of Diwali, the festival of lights, and the nearby Hindu Temple was pulling out all the stops. The culmination of the festive season lit up the skies in an impressive show of cascading light.

 

 

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As I threaded my way through congested traffic, I observed the colorful garb and happy clusters of family and friends as they departed the place of worship. Given the focus of my lecture earlier in the day, it was a compelling case study about the shifting terrain of religious identity in the United States.

 

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This election season has raised the issue of religious liberty, albeit not explicitly. It has been a more vague implication of some of the Islamophobia spewed in the political discourse at the national and regional levels. Some of the slogans are not forward-looking and inclusive; rather, they are protectionist and assume a “Christian nation” identity that has been a flawed concept from the beginning.

In his fine book Flourishing, Miroslav Volf proposes that if one by conviction chooses to be a religious exclusivist, which means that one believes ones own religion is the only true pathway, he or she must become a political pluralist if religious liberty is to be ensured. This means that the religious freedom one expects for oneself is freely offered to others, as inscribed in the constitution. Political exclusivism is the attempt of the state to impose religious belief.

The religious and political leaders of the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, saw their fledgling colonial outpost as the “New Jerusalem,” which was dedicated to following God’s laws, as interpreted by their Puritan faith. We know the stories of those who did not comply; leaders meted out severe punishment and public shaming. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter illustrates this ethos in memorable ways.

This experiment could not last, and thankfully religious liberty prevailed as the separation of church and state became the law of the land. In our time, a fresh appreciation for that reality is paramount.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares creative leaders who welcome a diverse world.