Os Guinness: Liberals and Conservatives Are Getting Religious Freedom Wrong
Evangelical promotion of religious liberty is often criticized for being self-serving. How can we be better religious liberty advocates?
A journalist in the '80s commented to me that evangelicals speak of "justice," but what they really mean is "just us." In some ways, that might be expected because the Christian faith is the most persecuted faith across the world, and even in the U.S. there is something of an "ABC moment" (Anything but Christianity) in many discussions. But we Christians are followers of Jesus who are called to be "people for others." We should remember too that religion is always most influential and positive in public life when it addresses the common good. There is also the simple fact that rights are reciprocal and rights and responsibilities are mutual. That means that our rights are best guaranteed and protected when the rights of all others are protected.
You call for securing a truly multi-faith society without succumbing to a lowest-common-denominator unity. How should religious groups find this sort of common ground?
Civility is too often confused with niceness, with squeamishness over differences, or with the idea that it means ecumenical unity and a compromise over truth. But I would argue that the vision of a civil public square is actually the best protection of "the freedom to be fully faithful," and at the same time a way to engage others with peaceful persuasion. Expressed philosophically, the differences between faiths are ultimate and irreducible at the level of presuppositions, but fortunately we can build an overlapping consensus at the practical day-to-day level, or a society as diverse as ours would blow itself apart. Needless to say, it is dangerous to neglect that consensus. It may appear fragile, but it is vital and must be sustained.
How does your vision speak into those contexts of severe intolerance and persecution such as Egypt where rival factions of Muslims have attacked each other—and even attacked Christian churches?
One of the greatest questions of the 21st century is: "Will Islam modernize peacefully?" That prospect is not inconceivable, but at the moment there are few indications to encourage such a positive outcome. As countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan show, Islam is in the throes of titanic convulsions that we must pay careful attention to as they work their way out. Unquestionably, Islamism at the moment has joined aggressive secularism to represent the two greatest threats to religious freedom around the world. But our own greatest danger does not come from the outside. It comes from within, from the fact that we in the West have forgotten who we are, and are unsure how we conduct our public lives when Muslims and other immigrants come into "our tent."
I am not utopian, as I said. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to religious tensions, and any solution would be much harder to achieve in Europe than in the U.S., and much, much harder in China and the Middle East than in Europe. But the tragedy is that when it should be natural for the U.S. to take the lead, it is failing to do so miserably.
Will America and the West wake up before it is too late? What will it take? We are each responsible only for ourselves, and for the little we can each do. But like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we can at least say that, whatever happens elsewhere in the world and even in our own countries, we will speak and act on behalf of a better way forward. Although the folly, the darkness, and the evil may spread, we must put our stake in the ground and say, "but not through me." That is what I have tried to do in the book.