I spent Sunday with the good folk of University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo. It is a strong American Baptist Churches-Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church, and annually the congregation hosts a Baptist Heritage Sunday. Last year Dr. Neville Callam of the Baptist World Alliance presented a lecture, so I knew I was in tall cotton.
The pastor, Dr. Danny Chisholm, kindly offered me preaching duties for the Sunday morning service. I ribbed him that he was a chicken-heart for bailing on the last Sunday before Election Day! Actually, he has offered wise pastoral guidance in a CBF blog for how his congregation can approach the ballot box this year.
Later in the afternoon I offered a lecture on “Competing Religious Liberties.” In a nation of growing religious pluralism, the constitutional right of religious liberty needs to apply to all. By way of illustration, I then traced the political machinations in Myanmar and the impact on religious liberty for the Christian minority.
A learned congregation, with many members affiliated with the neighboring university, made for lively discussion. I witnessed the Baptist charism of religious liberty at work as varied perspectives emerged. The gathered faithful gave me much to ponder as I headed back to Kansas City.
As I pulled into my neighborhood that evening, I saw a spectacular fireworks display overhead. I tried to figure out what the celebration was about; the Chiefs did win yesterday, but this was a bit extravagant. I then remembered that it is the time of Diwali, the festival of lights, and the nearby Hindu temple was pulling out all the stops. The culmination of the festive season lit up the skies in an impressive show of cascading light.
As I threaded my way through congested traffic, I observed the colorful garb and happy clusters of family and friends as they departed the place of worship. Given the focus of my lecture earlier in the day, it was a compelling case study about the shifting terrain of religious identity in the United States.
You may recall that during the George W. Bush administration, the White House welcomed the observance of Diwali there. President Obama has continued this tradition in recognition of the growing number of Hindus, Jains and Sikhs present in the United States. Celebrating the power of light to conquer darkness resonates far beyond these Asian religious traditions.
This election season has raised the issue of religious liberty, albeit not explicitly. It has been a more vague implication of some of the Islamophobia spewed in the political discourse at the national and regional levels. Some of the slogans are not forward-looking and inclusive; rather, they are protectionist and assume a “Christian nation” identity that has been a flawed concept from the beginning.
In his fine book Flourishing, Miroslav Volf proposes that if one by conviction chooses to be a religious exclusivist, which means that one believes ones own religion is the only true pathway, he or she must become a political pluralist if religious liberty is to be ensured. This means that the religious freedom one expects for oneself is freely offered to others, as inscribed in the constitution. Political exclusivism is the attempt of the state to impose religious belief.
Radicalized Islamists have sought to impose political exclusivism in Egypt and regions of Indonesia. Seeking to enforce sharia law on religious minorities in these contexts has had abysmal outcomes. One might argue that the whole ISIS movement is an attempt for religion and politics to be one.
In our nation’s nascent years, faith and governing were intertwined in harmful ways. The religious and political leaders of the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, saw their fledgling colonial outpost as the “New Jerusalem,” which was dedicated to following God’s laws, as interpreted by their Puritan faith. We know the stories of those who did not comply; leaders meted out severe punishment and public shaming. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter illustrates this ethos in memorable ways.
This experiment in America could not last, and thankfully religious liberty prevailed as the separation of church and state became the law of the land. In our time, a fresh appreciation for that reality is paramount.
My church sought to embody respect for the lived religion of others this past summer as the children’s program was “Meet Your Neighbor.” Christians and Muslims and Jews — teachers and children — visited one another’s places of worship, learned the history of each distinctive tradition, and simply made friends. It was the most important lesson about religious liberty amidst religious pluralism, and curiosity morphed into appreciation for their differences and sacred kinship. In a country where Christians continue to be predominant in religious affiliation, it is our responsibility to ensure others have the same freedom to religious expression as we enjoy.