Thursday, March 23, 2006

Freedom and the Golden Rule

In connection with our law school’s speaker series, we recently had two sessions with Sam Ericsson, the head of Advocates International. Advocates International is a low profile group that works for international religious freedom and human rights. Rather than proclaiming human rights violations in the media, Advocates tends to work behind the scenes to rectify them. They try to serve the justice systems of governments around the world in order to help them do the right thing. Sam Ericsson pointed out that he has had a great deal of success merely discussing the idea of the Golden Rule with ministers of justice and other officials in governments around the world.

Of course, the Golden Rule is a simple idea: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The logic of this idea is inescapable. We also want to be treated well. There are almost always situations in which each of us is in the position of weakness and someone else is in the position of strength. We want to be treated well by those who are in the position of strength. Hence it is only rational that we should treat others when we are in the position of strength in the same way that we want to be treated when we are in the position of weakness. In terms of religious liberty, this means that if we would like to be able to worship freely and proselytize to convert others to our religion, we should be willing to allow others to worship freely and proselytize people to their religion.

The historical tolerance for religious differences in the West developed exactly for this reason. During the wars following the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants were fighting against each other until they finally came to the realization that if they did not want to be persecuted when they were the minority, they ought not to persecute others while they were the majority. Hence a sort of religious truce was obtained.

The International Declaration of Human Rights and some periods of American foreign policy have sought to spread the same kind of truce worldwide. Some difficulty has been experienced in spreading this idea. In areas where people have experienced the domination of their own religion to the almost complete exclusion of other religions, it still seems possible for them to believe that they can continue to treat other religions as they would not want to be treated themselves because the reverse situation will not occur. Some religions, like Islam, even maintain that other religions must submit or be eliminated.

While religious violence was necessary in Old Testament times to protect the integrity of God’s chosen people Israel in a world full of violent, idolatrous empires, and while religious violence was tempting in times and places where states were each dominated by a single religion which was hostile to the religion held by a country’s “natural enemies,” the Golden Rule is still a dominant principle of Christianity and a principle which ultimately implies a requirement for a certain amount of religious toleration.

There is always a temptation to try to rationalize this. One could say that because Christianity is true and other religions are false, that we should encourage people to believe in Christianity, with all available legal means, on the ground that if we believed something false, we would want people to do everything necessary to bring us into belief in the truth. But I would like to suggest that as far as ideas are concerned, all of us would rather be persuaded rather than converted to an idea at the point of a sword or taxed into belief in an idea by an oppressive government. Even though it is true that we would all like to be led to believe in the truth, and that Christianity is indeed true, it still makes sense to say that because of the Golden Rule we should seek to persuade others to the truth through preaching and example rather than through force or the power of government. In the end, I think that if people understand that Christianity is committed to “gentle persuasion” rather than to the use of force to propagate its ideas, they would be far more willing to believe in the truth of Christianity.

The problem still remains to convince other religions of the need to evaluate truth objectively and to adopt what is true trans-culturally rather than to assume that one’s own ancestors were correct and to use violence to prevent anyone from straying from the ancestral commitment. The very fact that Islam maintains its dominance in many parts of the world, in part at least, by forbidding its adherents to even consider whether or not Islam is true or false, does not make me impressed with the claims of Islam. Undoubtedly, if Christianity were maintained by force, people would have a similar skepticism concerning its claims to truth.

Sam Ericsson made a similar argument about the applicability of the Golden Rule. He pointed out that the first murder in human history—Cain killing Abel, was an act of religious violence since Cain was bitter and jealous over Abel’s successful worship of God and God’s refusal to accept Cain’s heretical worship of God. Cain failed in his worship of God because he sought to offer God fruits and vegetables rather than the blood of a sacrificed animal. This was a failure to take sin seriously. God’s whole point in using animal sacrifice in the Old Testament is that sin is so serious that it can only be atoned for through death—the shedding of blood. Fruits and vegetables are not enough to atone for sin. Of course God Himself ultimately atoned for our sin in the sacrifice of Himself as Jesus on the cross. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, was in a position where it was appropriate for Him to offer a sacrifice to atone for human beings because He was a human being and yet in a position where He had something of enough value to atone for human sin against God because He was God and had a life of infinite value and perfection. In the Old Testament, God required the sacrifice as a foreshadowing of His own sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Cain was rebelling against God’s appointed means of salvation by refusing to worship God as God sought to be worshipped. He was jealous of Abel’s success with God. Rather than accept Abel’s success and conform religiously, he committed the first act of religious violence by killing his brother Abel. Even today, most religious violence is motivated by a similar rebellion against God’s actual standards and an insistence that we should be able to impose our own religious views on others. As the one faith that identifies and spreads the good news of God’s own sacrifice for our sins, it only makes sense that Christianity cannot and should not propagate itself through religious violence. We have no reason to be jealous of others whose religions are false. Instead, we have reason to pity them and to seek to persuade them with love and kind persuasion.

Undoubtedly, the next thing that will occur to our critics, however, is that if Christianity is a religion of love and does not use force to propagate its ideas, why do Christians insist that human law must still conform to the limits of the moral law? The answer is that the purpose of government is to maintain order and preserve the lives and property of human beings as an extension of God’s governance of the universe. Human law must be merciful because all of us fall short of God’s absolute standard. But human law must also maintain order within the parameters of God’s moral law. Human law must punish evil and reward good. It must not reward evil and punish good. If human law chooses not to reward some good, that is acceptable. If it chooses not to punish some evils, that may likewise be acceptable. But human law cannot transgress the boundaries of the moral law by persecuting those who do good and rewarding those who do evil. In this the government clearly has a different role and purpose than the church. Sam Ericsson spoke about this as well in his visit. He uses a description involving circles to show the idea that there are some areas of life that should be under the authority of the church, some under the authority of government, and some under the authority of the family. There are some areas of overlap and some areas of independence. While I do not find this metaphor of the circles to be ideal, it is nevertheless true that God’s design and purpose for government and His design and purpose for His church are not the same. While the government should not try to convert people or prevent conversions, the whole purpose of government is tied to morality. So governments must act under the guidance of “religious truth” about morality even though they cannot force belief in religious truth about the means of salvation.

Providentially, while human sinfulness in individuals and cultures affects how we feel about and apply moral principles, moral principles themselves are universal. Real wise and orthodox Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, classic Pagans, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all recognize most of the same moral principles. The real difference is in their views about God, man, reality, and salvation, not morality. When they have differences of opinion about the morality of the act, it is usually the view of reality that is in question. For example, even the Islamo-facists believe it is wrong to kill innocent people – they just do not regard anyone who disagrees with them as “innocent.” While this sort of disagreement is serious, it is not a disagreement about moral principle. It is a disagreement about the nature of God, man, and reality.

So, government should have laws based on moral principles, imperfectly as humans understand the world. But, government should not persecute or compel belief in a particular set of views about God, man, reality, and salvation. It will have to act based on such ideas, it will even have to allow some set of ideas to be taught is school. Because religion is a label for ones understanding of such things, everyone has a religion of sorts, and it is impossible for government to be “neutral” between views about such things as man and reality, the radical liberal dream of government without religion is impossible. Government must make decisions based on the wisdom of its leaders about reality and morality. But it still should not compel belief in a particular religion.


Ryan said...

You write, "But it still should not compel belief in a particular religion." But I wonder, should it compel belief in a particular political system?

Professor McConnell said...


It depends what you mean. It is impossible and impractical to compel actual "belief" in anything. So, for example, I think it would be unwise to try to use force to stamp out belief in monarchy.

I also think the scripture suggests certain worldview principles that should lead to the rejection of certain kinds of political systems, but among what remains the Bible is not completely clear. It makes no sense to compel something that is not morally necessary.

All of that said, existing political structures that are realativly obediant to God's law are ordainied by God and must defend their survival in order to perform the mission God has given them of restraining evil and promoting good.