Thursday, February 04, 2016

Religious Exclusivism & Political Pluralism - Compatible?

Is it possible for someone to be a religious exclusivist and also believe in political pluralism? That is, can you believe that your religious tradition is the correct one and still affirm a form of political pluralism that allows others to believe the same? Can you allow others to offer their own vision of what it means to flourish?

There is a conceit in our culture that religious and political exclusivism go together but is this true? Miroslav Volf, in his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, begs to differ. He demonstrates pretty convincingly that they are not inherently related. He gives us as a prime example Roger Williams. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a religious exclusivist. But, unlike his friend John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ("city set on a hill"), he didn't believe that it was appropriate for the state to force a person to affirm a particular religious position or obey a religious law. Although he had been offered a prime pastorate in the colony on his arrival in 1634, he would later be run out of town. Why?  Volf writes:

What was his unpardonable offense? He advocated the seditious doctrine that the magistrates had no right to enforce obedience to the First Table of the Law, the portion of the Ten Commandments that regulated human duties to God. On this, he collided also with Winthrop, a man he considered his friend.  [Flourishing, p. 153].
Volf notes that no one before Williams had argued for such a radical freedom of conscience as did he in response to his exile. Not even John Locke, whose ideas influenced the development of our political system, went as far as did he. Indeed, Volf writes: "Williams insisted that compulsion in matters of religion is utterly incompatible with the Christian faith" (p, 154).  It is not good for Christianity to force a person to affirm the Christian faith or live by its tenets. That vision became the foundation for the colony and later state of Rhode Island.  A strong faith thus requires political pluralism!  

So, when we hear rhetoric, especially from certain politicians, suggesting they are representing the Christian community, that they will fight for Christian values, and turn back those who differ, we need to question whether they are being true to the faith. That's not to say that our values are not rooted in our faith, it's just that we can't force others to join our religious tradition!  So yes, religion, even exclusive forms, can thrive in a politically pluralistic context. It's okay to believe that you have come to the truth, but it's not okay to enforce that truth. Or, as Volf puts it: "Religious exclusivists who advocate political exlusivism are bad for today's world" (p. 159). 

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