The world's predominant faiths should protect religious freedom for all
Mutual support among religions doesn't require theological compromise, but every religion needs to respect others' beliefs.
Richmond, Va. — The conversation was both memorable and sad. It was 1999 and I was in Moscow representing the United States and attempting to promote international religious freedom. In 1997, Russia had adopted a new law on religion, mostly in response to an opportunistic West that had flooded the former Soviet Union with missionaries following the fall of communism. The Russian Orthodox Church and Islam – the two established majority religions – felt threatened and conspired with the Russian government to produce the law. Most religious law from authoritarian countries turns out to be bad legislation, and this was no exception. It essentially provided government protection for established religions, while tearing up the welcome mat for anything new.
My meeting took place with high-ranking officials of the Orthodox and Islamic faiths. The discussions were candid and clear. The Russian Orthodox Church wanted to maintain a government-sanctioned monopoly on things spiritual. It was obvious that the Western missionary onslaught had generated great angst. The Russian Church felt dismissed at best, overrun at worst. Missionaries' cultural insensitivities contributed much to this hurt, ensuring this legislation as a result.
Similarly, Islam felt a need to push back. The imam of Moscow told me unabashedly that he was losing some of his flock to Western evangelizing efforts and needed the 1997 law to maintain "market share" (his phrase). This was the sad part of the conversation. I asked rhetorically, "What does this say about your faith, your theology, when you need legislation from the government to elevate your beliefs over other beliefs, or to guarantee your market share in the marketplace of spiritual matters?" This was legislation that could just as easily be applied to import quotas and price controls! This was certainly not the finest moment for two majority faiths.
In a culture of religious pluralism, majority faiths bear special responsibilities. Unfortunately, all too often it is the dark side that emerges. India's Hindus, for example, have recently petitioned the government for a series of anticonversion laws. For the world's "largest democracy," this violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is appallingly ironic.
Pakistan's antiblasphemy laws have likewise sullied the moral standing and reputation of Islam. Clumsily written and easily abused, this legislation has most often been used to settle scores with individuals from minority faiths.
In the US, Christianity is the majority faith. As a nation that trumpets the rule of law, our "dark side" tends to reveal itself in the political process. For instance, in next year's presidential sweepstakes, there may be a Mormon on the ticket. Polling data suggest that a significant number of Christians will not vote for a Mormon. If this is true, we can also assume that a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist candidate would lose votes from the Christian majority. This raises an ironic question: Is religious identity the last hurdle for a country that prides itself on having "no religious test" for political office and in which religious freedom has been woven into the fabric of the rule of law? What does it say when a country is more likely to elect a member of a racial or gender minority than a religious one? At the least, religious majorities need to implement their faith without creating fearful minorities.
Martin Luther King Jr. summed up why the majority should stand up for all faiths. "When one is not free, no one is free." Silence in the face of religious oppression hastens the day when all religions will be diminished. Mutual support among religions does not necessitate religious compromise. No faith needs to seek a lower common denominator in order to protect all people of faith, but followers of every religion should respect others' beliefs.
Any steps toward respect preclude establishing one faith over another. A hierarchy only exacerbates differences. Distinctions are important, but points of commonality should be identified as well. The golden rule, sanctity of life, respect for sacred texts, reconciliation commitments, and other values are represented to some degree in all major religions. Focusing on commonalities creates collective power, instead of a destructive wedge.
Finally, majority faiths have an obligation to show their best qualities, to demonstrate why the "news" of their faith is "good news." Theological protectionism suggests an insecure theology. On the other hand, having all the answers precludes the humble embrace of the great mysteries of existence. The awesomeness of God is diminished by human absolutes and judgments proffered in easily digestible sound bites. It just may be that our own faith is more attractive to others when respect is evident, humility is the norm, and actions incarnate are our spiritual language.
One way we grade another country's commitment to human rights is by how that country treats minority populations. Similarly, there is a religious test for majority faiths and how they interact with minority beliefs. And this test is one that all religious majorities ought to prepare for – because lots of folks are watching.
• Robert Seiple was the first US ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom. He is currently president and CEO of the Council for America's First Freedom.