Monday, October 17, 2011

Is Christian Fundamentalism Intolerant?

     We have tried so far to demonstrate that Islam is, indeed, a violent and intolerant religion, and that these tendencies in Islam stem from the fact that its program is essentially theocratic.  There is no separation of church and state; the power of the state is enlisted to support the cause of Islam.  Physical force is used to enforce a regime that consists mainly in external rules of conduct.
     But what about Christianity?  Does it not also have a long history of persecution and violence?
     As we have tried to show in our last post, there is no basis in the New Testament for the use of force to defend the faith.  The persecutions, Crusades and pogroms that marred much of later church history were aberrations.  Jesus Himself never countenanced any such thing.
     What is especially interesting, however, is how the Protestant Reformation and the later Evangelical revivals served to promote a rebirth of religious freedom.
     The dramatic turning point in Western attitudes towards religious freedom came on April 18, 1521.  Martin Luther had been asked to recant his writings.  Appearing before the Holy Roman Emperor and the assembled princes of the Empire, Luther defended his writings, and then concluded his remarks with this famous declaration:
         "Since then your all-gracious majesty and princely grace desires a simple answer, I want to give you one, simple and straightforward, namely this: unless I have been convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by rational argument, then I remain convinced by the authors I have quoted, and my conscience remains bound by God's Word.  For I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone, since it is well-known that they often err and have contradicted themselves.  I can and want to retract nothing, since it is neither safe nor advisable to do something against one's conscience.  God help me.  Amen."
(It is debatable as to whether or not Luther actually uttered the words, so often attributed to him, "I cannot do otherwise, here I stand . . .")
     What Luther did, in effect, was to assert the right of private conscience over against public authority.  When there is a clash between God's will and human authority, God's will must always take precedence."We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19,20, NKJV).  God's Word limits human authority.
     Unfortunately, it took a while for the implications of this truth to be fully realized in Western thought.  Both Luther and Calvin presided over state churches.  The Lutherans and Reformed persecuted each other and they both persecuted the Anabaptists.  With the onset of spiritual awakenings in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the implications of human accountability to the divine will began to appear.  Sincere believers, whose hearts had been touched by divine grace, often found themselves in the minority in most countries.  There were inevitable clashes with the civil authorities over matters of religious policy.  In the English speaking world Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers agonized over where their duty lay, and eventually the latent principle  emerged: the individual conscience must be free to obey God, and the civil authorities may not intrude.  The colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were founded on the principles of religious liberty, the British Act of Toleration was passed in 1689, and the First Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1790.
      True evangelical religion can never countenance religious persecution.  To the unawakened sinner human society is all that there is.  He is all too willing to conform to prevailing standards.  But in a religious awakening people develop a heightened awareness of God, and they begin to realize that the edicts of the state cannot be confused with the will of the Deity.  It is manifestly not true that "vox populi" is "vox Dei."  Political leaders are often venal and corrupt, their decisions often unjust and unwise.  The true believer becomes all too painfully aware of an irreconcilable conflict between what God wants and what the government wants, but he knows that his undivided loyalty belongs to God alone.  To allow any other authority to interpose itself between the individual conscience and God is tantamount to idolatry.
     A spiritually awakened Christian is also aware that a genuine religious conversion can only be the result of an operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the individual sinner.  Spiritual life can only be imparted by God Himself.  The state is completely powerless to effect spiritual change.  Thus a rebirth of genuine piety leads inevitably to a restriction of the government's power.  The only workable modus operandi is a separation of church and state.
     The state is charged with the responsibility of maintaining civil order, and we owe it obedience in matters of external behavior.  But in matters of faith the conscience must be free -- free to obey God as He speaks to the individual soul.  Where there is no freedom of conscience there is the worst form of tyranny.  Freedom of religion is one of our most priceless treasures.
     The "New Atheists" sometimes claim that religious Fundamentalists are a threat to political freedom.  As far as Christian believers go, nothing could be farther from the truth.

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