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March/April 2010

Discover more articles from this issue.

Bound to Do Good

We welcome any sons of Adam who come in love among us and will not condemn, punish, banish, prosecute, or lay violent hands upon anyone, in whatever name,...

Religious Wars and Religious Freedom: A Troubled History

Although today Western society generally accepts that freedom of religious belief and expression is an innate human right, that position emerged only after centuries of religious intolerance and persecution, and centuries of interreligious hatred so extreme that it frequently resulted in wars of religion.

Whiteout

This particular global religious snowstorm might easily render constitutional snowplows ineffective.

Confessions of a Religious Fanatic

Words that depict religious faith at its highest ideal have been usurped by those who depict it at its lowest. And, unfortunately, but (thanks to folk such as Nidal Hasan) understandably, it

In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution

I am in the right, and you are in the wrong. When you are the stronger, you ought to tolerate me; for it is your duty to tolerate truth. But when I am the...

Keeping Up With the Jones

Sparks of religious controversy can be kindled from even the most everyday circumstances in the United States. One recent flash point was ignited by a...

Cross Purposes

Another Religious Display Case Comes Before the Supreme Court

The Hidden Danger of Conspiracy Theories

A problem with conspiracy theories is that they oversimplify world events in order to find a scapegoat.

Dialogue and Change

I am in Canterbury, England, at Canterbury Cathedral, home of the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican/Episcopal Church. I came to attend as an...

Magazine Archive »

Published in the March/April 2010 Magazine
by Lincoln E. Steed

Snow falls every year in the Northeast United States. It’s effects range from New England style picture postcard to the sheet ice and downed power lines that often accompany late winter storms closer to Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. Most years snow is a hoped for accompaniment to the holiday season and then a series of flurries that pass into spring.

Not this year.

This year began as the last ended—a huge fall of almost two feet of snow blanketed the area around Washington well before Christmas. The snow endured into the early days of the new year; its effect compounded by falling temperatures that might well have migrated from a Midwest winter.

We made it to February with a couple of the usual sub 12” falls. And then we got SNOW. A weekend fall of well over two feet of snow was followed within hours by a second storm that dumped as much as 18” in my hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland. Life came to an abrupt halt. Snowplows were not up to the task. Dump trucks gathered in gaggles along deserted freeways, as earthmoving equipment creakily loaded the snow for relocation to growing ice mountains. They say the area has had more snow this season than any time since records have been kept.

There was a moment during the second big storm of February that it hit me: “This is serious. I couldn’t get out of here if I wanted to.” I was looking out my front window at the blizzard, which had been swirling non-stop, all night and all morning at that point. Our driveway, which had been shoveled clear of the last 2-3 feet of snow, leaving steep edges to its outline, had vanished into a white flatness. That meant it had actually filled and drifted up to the height of the banks! The road outside was the same, with nary a snowplow in sight. Our roof groaned under its own drift patterns.

We had been spoiled into complacency by several years of super-mild winters. Now I wondered when the sequence of storms would stop. The same question, I am sure, that recurred to the Donner party, lost on the Oregon Trail. When there is so much snow, a thaw can be a long time coming and any melt delayed by the mass of the snow itself.

About the time of the first big storm I read something analogous in our religious liberty world. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its worldwide study on how governments and civil societies restrict the religious beliefs and practices of individual citizens. I should have been more prepared for its conclusions, as I take regular seminars on the world religious liberty situation. But I was shocked to read the finding that 70 per cent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live with high restrictions on their religious freedom.

The Pew study is a fascinating matrix of evaluation. The majority of countries do not restrict freedom severely, but the majority of people live in the 64 nations that do. The majority of populations in those countries probably do not feel restricted, precisely because they are the majority who enable the repression.

President George Bush Senior once famously observed that democracy was breaking out all over. His son, as president, thought to encourage that trend by the not so gentle nudge of force. But it is worth noting that while there is indeed a growing world force for self-determination, it is not at all synchronous with religious openness and religious freedom for all. In fact, many of the trails of religious accommodation worldwide are rapidly drifting over in the global whiteout.

The war on terrorism has been conducted so far by a Western coalition determined to avoid characterizing it as a war of religious ideology. This is a correct stance, but I sometimes think its very application has blinded us to the sad reality that there is a religious ideology behind the terror. While relatively few individuals might be compelled to strap on explosive clothing and destroy the “other,” there are millions who share milder versions of the same sentiments---which should give pause to those inclined to think we are just dealing with “extremists.” What we are observing worldwide is the radicalization of religious expression. This of course means a lowered tolerance of the religious other. In other words, we are seeing global restrictions on religious freedom for any minority.

Within Islam we have seen not just an extreme application of the Koranic marginalization of the unbeliever, but a renewal of the often-violent rivalry between Shiite and Sunni, as well as attacks on Sufism and other Islamic sects. And it is worth noting that Iran is unrepentant and continuing in its violent persecution of Baha’is.

China has come light years from the purges of the Cultural Revolution, but it remains deeply antagonistic to broad-based religious expression. Even the apparently benign and barely religious Falun Gong movement continues to merit outright persecution, with continuing arrests and occasional executions.

Buddhism, once apparently benign, is showing a great propensity for political control and a willingness to restrict other faiths from operating feely in Buddhist cultures.

Eastern Orthodox communities have responded to the collapse of the Communist bloc control by a blatant political power play designed to restrict other religions in their region.

Yes, much of the so-called Christian West seems so secularized as to not be part of the global chilling of religious freedom, but it is a misleading generalization. In Europe the signs of trouble include a huge increase in neo-Nazi youth activity and things like the recent Swiss law against minarets. It is easy to conflate the religious and social conflicts created by irresponsible immigration patterns; but the net negative effect on religious attitudes is clear.

In the United States the religious polarization, with its attendant intolerance continues even under a more secular national rule. This magazine has from its origins decried the tendency toward combining church and state here. It is a tendency far more deep-seated than the occasional outburst of the Supreme Court, a president or the legislators. It goes to a sense of manifest destiny—of religious entitlement, which in a crisis easily wraps around national identity. It has always been problematic, but in this particular global religious snowstorm, it might easily render constitutional snowplows ineffective.

Its not like great minds are not searching for a way out of the blizzard the world faces. Pope Benedict XVI released an encyclical on June 29, 2009, entitled “Caritas in Veritate”---Latin for “Charity in Truth.” He presented a leather-bound copy to U.S. President Barak Obama, on his way to a G8 summit called to address the world’s economic emergency. It is an amazing document, but ultimately as troubling as it is amazing.

In the document Benedict addresses all the major issues of the modern world—immigration, sovereignty, capital-labor conflicts, financial collapse, intolerance—and suggests they can all be moderated by application of the Biblically based rule of charity. I think he is right in this.

But he goes a little further. There is the suggestion of the need for enforcement regimes to make it work. And as one commentator observed after analyzing the document, to accept its prescriptions is to accept Rome with the package.

The Bible is not the only holy book that speaks of end-times and stormy times to come. It is, of course, for those of us that believe it to be the inspired record of God’s communication to mankind, necessarily authoritative. And when in Revelation chapter 13 it speaks quite clearly of an end-time alliance between two major powers—one political and one religious—with the aim of compelling the whole world to worship a certain way, I pay close attention.

The answer to a global whiteout of religious freedom is not an extraordinary application of force. It requires all people of good will to man the shovels, the instruments of understanding—and work toward truly enabling the God-given right for us each to choose our way to Him in freedom. And it is worth remembering that even the "snowstorms of the century" pass, the snow melts and the outlines of normalcy reemerge. Too bad the Donner party couldn’t wait.

Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."

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