Saturday, April 14, 2012

No Compulsion in Religion

One of the most celebrated verses of the Qu'ran addresses the essential nature of religious freedom: "There is no compulsion in religion, for the right way is clearly from the wrong way. Whoever therefore rejects the forces of evil and believes in God, he has taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way, for God is All Hearing and Knowing." (Qu'ran 2:256)

In the late 17th century, John Locke delivered a less subtle rebuke of the use of force in religion. At this time, some were beginning to fear that Catholicism would overtake England. In a letter addressed to an anonymous friend, Locke set forth a new understanding of the relationship between religion and government while emphasizing the importance of religious toleration:
"Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church. For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ. Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself."

Locke's reasoning was influential in the American founding, which in turn paved the way for religious revivals such as the Great Awakening. During the Second Great Awakening, another letter emerged that defended the same principle of tolerance. In 1842, Joseph Smith, Jr. wrote a letter to John Wentworth that included a brief history of the church and thirteen articles of faith. The call for tolerance in the eleventh article of faith is remarkably similar to both Locke's letter and the Qu'ranic declaration:

"We claim the aprivilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the bdictates of our own cconscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them dworship how, where, or what they may." (Articles of Faith 1:11)

In many ways, our modern society is no different from late 17th century England or early 19th century America. Just as the British feared encroaching Catholicism, and early Americans engaged in a war of words and a tumult of opinions, some people today are wary of the looming threat of theocracy, and are eager to combat the seemingly imposing power of religion in the name of tolerance (see Ironically,  that very principle of tolerance is found at the core of the western philosophical tradition, the Judeo-Christian heritage and even in the Qu'ran. Freedom is the basis of religion, and religion helps to form the basis of freedom. John Locke's letter continues:

"If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread in the steps and follow the perfect example of that Prince of Peace, who sent out His soldiers to the subduing of nations, and gathering them into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation. This was His method. Though if infidels were to be converted by force, if those that are either blind or obstinate were to be drawn off from their errors by armed soldiers, we know very well that it was much more easy for Him to do it with armies of heavenly legions than for any son of the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons... The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light." (John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration)

I have attempted to trace a theme through the centuries and through various traditions, but this theme, that there is no compulsion in religion, is even deeper, even wider, more over-arching and at the same time more specific than history or the pen can tell. Nevertheless, perhaps better than most, an anonymous poet has captured essence of the freedom of religion:

"Know then that ev'ry soul is free,
To choose his life and what he'll be;
For this eternal truth is given,
That God will force no man to heaven."
(Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 240)

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