Limited Expression: A Bully in Nanny's Clothing

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Limited Expression: A Bully in Nanny's Clothing

March 10, 2010

Is there a problem with proselytism overseas by U.S. religious groups? Isn't sharing one's faith part of religious freedom? When does it cross the line into manipulation and coercion?

It is bad enough if bad information costs you the value of your 401-K, but worse if it costs your soul. Being told you are wrong is important at any time, but hearing that you might be wrong about critical areas is vital.

Who wants to be wrong about the big questions of life?

No friend would see such a major mistake being made without expressing his opinion. This is especially true in the area of religion. The highest compliment a person can pay is to share what he thinks is true about the very nature of reality and to show the courage to risk offense by confronting a friend with an error.

Freedom of religion includes the ability to argue for the truth and even necessity of your beliefs. If you are right, it is a moral necessity to tell your friends they are ruining their chances at true happiness. If you are wrong, then expressing your beliefs is a good way to test them.

When a friend shares his faith with me, it is a splendid opportunity for me to learn and grow even if I do not end up thinking he is correct. A good Mormon shared his beliefs with me and this led me to the fascinating study of those books Mormons hold to be scripture. A Catholic mentor suggested that I should join his church and this led to serious thought about the nature of religious authority and the structure of the church. While I did not end up agreeing with either of my friends, it deepened my own faith to dialog with them.

These conversations continue and run both ways!

Shutting up your critics is a great way to strengthen them. When pagan Rome started losing the intellectual argument with Christians, they tried to kill them. That never works. If Rome wanted to stop Christian ideas from spreading, they need better answers for their Christian critics. Refuting a Christian philosopher like Justin would have been more effective than making him: Justin Martyr.

No culture that suppresses the ability to share contrary faiths has confidence in its own values. It is a sign of Catholic confidence that one can openly advocate atheism in Rome and a sign of Islamic weakness that one cannot be openly Christian in Arabia.

Should there be limits to this expression of faith?

Public space should be open to the expression of faith and no faith. Government should not decide what views are "reasonable" and what views can be heard. If secular ideas can be expressed, religious people have the right to respond. If one group promotes religion, then the non-religious have the right to disagree.

"Manners police" are odious and a threat to free speech. The power to decide who is being mean is the power to become the bully in nanny's clothing. Adults don't need the government to protect them from the power of words.

While I must tolerate your practice of religion, and even its public expression, government should never force me to participate. I might have to wait while you pray, but I don't have to pray to your god.

European governments are getting many of these decisions exactly wrong. They forbid individuals from public expressions of faith, such as wearing religious articles of clothing, but then bow to demands that "offensive" cartoons not be published.

We should tolerate our neighbor wearing a cross, but he must tolerate his neighbor who wears a Darwin-fish T-shirt.

Of course, just because behavior should be legal does not mean it is ethical or effective. It isn't right to "hard sell" atheism or religion with false promises that it will solve all your problems, but people should be able to do so. The man who stands on a public street
in front of our local theater has a right to shout his sermons at us, but he is still being a bit of a boor.

Thank goodness in a country with limited government not all space is public. Private groups should be able to limit what happens in their midst. It is absurd when religious groups are forced to admit people they don't want as members. While argument and disagreement is good, it is not the only good.

Private companies should have the right to present the image they wish. While you can wear your religious T-shirt in the public square, a private company should be able to tell you to take it off.

In fact, private companies have the blessed American right to be stupid. It might be stupid to offend the Christian majority by insisting that none of your employees say, "Merry Christmas," but a company should be able to do so. It might look foolish to many for a company to start the day with prayer, but if the owner wishes it, then he can do so.

Private space is a chance for every man to fully try out his ideas of how to live and let his neighbors see how it goes. From his business to his home, a Southern Baptist should be able to try out his point of view for the rest of us. Every home, every private business, is a laboratory of what might work and what does not work for the broader

Such liberty is grand!

Private space also gives each man rest. I find riding the public subway, with all that noise and excitement, invigorating, but I would not want to vacation there. Private space allows my soul peace.

My home is my castle and I have a right to keep it, if I wish, a safe haven from other points of view. In fact, Socratic discourse of all kinds happens in my living room, but that is my choice. Obviously the right to private space is not absolute. There are some actions no community can tolerate, but government should be very slow to interfere in what happens in a man's home.

Public behavior is one thing, private another.

It is easy enough to find fault with the United States, but it mostly gets this tension right. At times our civil religion goes too far and at other times secularists pretend that they are the "neutral" or "merely reasonable" point of view. However, for the most part Americans are free to practice their beliefs and to express those beliefs in public.

My friends will keep praying that I find the truth of their faith traditions. My secular friends will keep arguing with me. I will keep telling them Jesus is Lord and that traditional Christianity is true using my best reason and personal experiences. Meanwhile, we should all unite in hoping that the American model, freedom of religion, spreads globally.

This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.