Monday, March 22, 2010

Cultural Effects: The Right to Believe

Another characteristic of American culture, and how it affects our Christianity.

Individual Freedom of Conscience

American culture tends to think of religious experience as personal, private and largely emotional, while public, professional, and intellectual life are something separate from faith. This is part of the “separation of church and state” that, on the good side, allows for religious pluralism within the United States, so that forced conversions or persecution of members of other faiths is generally not part of the national history of the U.S. (the Mormons may object to this generalization). Christianity is allowed to develop a lifestyle and worldview among its members apart from the mandates of the government (though this lifestyle clearly has not occurred apart from the cultural influence of political theory and events).

This cultural characteristic is positive in a huge way: in the majority of human experience, religion has been taken as a legitimate cause for internal repression or outward aggression by rulers and their armies, occasionally out of misguided conviction, but more often, it seems, as a pretext for greed and power. The consistent call through the Old and New Testament to worship God from the heart, not merely with outward conformity, makes forced conversions unproductive, if not counterproductive, to shaping true followers of Christ.

The weakness that this tolerance can cause is accepting that their individual choice has no implications for public living, but only affects what a person does, as it were, “on his (or her) own time.” The basic Christian act of evangelism is attacked by some as improper, at least "in a professional setting." The frustrating and easily misdirected task of applying Christian principles to political action keeps believers swinging between alternating extremes of overemphasizing the political activism allowed in the American system and retreating from the governmental sector with the conclusion that faith belongs only in the private and social realm, and cannot be effectively applied in the political process.

A Christian view on freedom of conscience allows for dialogue, recognizes evangelism as distinctive to the Christian life, and acknowledges that God is the one who ultimately brings people to faith - state mandates or forced conversions will not bring about genuine belief by all who profess faith because it is necessary or advantageous. It allows the gospel to affect every area of our life - private, professional, public - without accepting the secular definition of tolerance that requires all to set aside a belief in truth and accept the dogma of relativism. As people in a fallen world, as citizens in a diverse nation, we allow those in false religion and unbelief to worship as they choose. As Christians, we work hard to persuade them of the truth with loving concern, recognizing that the right to believe whatever one chooses does not mean that whatever one chooses to believe is right.

1 comment:

Austin said...

So in Israel, among the (super) religious Jews, there is little tolerance. This is a real problem in Israel. For example, the ultra-Orthodox (granted, I think they are a minority) do not send their children to participate in the required three-year army service. THe reason is that they don't even support the state of Israel (!), but there is a law/precedent that they don't have to serve in the army. This causes a lot of problems between Israelis who do serve in the army and those who don't.
Secondly, these same extremists will have demonstrations in front of businesses that are open on Saturdays (Sabbaths) because they oppose that ideology. Rather than letting these companies express their belief about business and such, they block the streets, burn tires (sometimes) and make a big fuss because the Sabbath is not being kept in Jerusalem. It's weird.
So, even with the frustrating excesses, I am glad that America has reached the point of freedom of religion.