Faith and Toleration

In the heavily-fictionalized movie Kingdom of Heaven set in the twelfth century, as the Islamic forces of Saladin were set to overrun Jerusalem held then by Christians, the bishop of Jerusalem, the person who should be most devoted to his faith, urges everyone to “Convert to Islam and repent later.” There was a time when the ignobility of such a convenient conversion would have been considered cowardly. Nonetheless, it is in keeping with modern sensibility.

Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig were recently released after being held captive my Muslim extremists in Gaza for nearly two weeks. Although the two reporters were under extreme emotion stress, they were not physically harmed. Nonetheless, as part of their captive they were they “…were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.” As Centanni explained, “Don’t get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

Most of us could rationalize that anything we are forced to say at the point of a gun does really matter, because the inner heart has not changed. The internal person is still intact. Surely, a just and loving God would forgive such forced repudiation.

The fact that their captors saw value in such a conversion is a pre-Enlightenment view of the world held by far too large a fraction of modern Islam. There were times when Christians regularly persecuted, Muslims, Jews and other sects of Christians for not embracing their version of the appropriate faith. However, part of modernity includes the recognition that truth faith cannot be compelled. Honest proselytization can only take the form of personal witness and moral persuasion, not forced conversions. Religious toleration is a necessary condition for freedom.

These ideas were perhaps best articulated in 1689, John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration. The core of Locke’s argument the willingness to employ cruelty to impose doctrinal conformity cannot proceed out of love and charity.

“That any man should think fit to cause another man — whose salvation he heartily desires — to expire in torments, and that even in an unconverted state, would, I confess, seem very strange to me, and I think, to any other also. But nobody, surely, will ever believe that such a carriage can proceed from charity, love, or goodwill. If anyone maintain that men ought to be compelled by fire and sword to profess certain doctrines, and conform to this or that exterior worship, without any regard had unto their morals; if anyone endeavor to convert those that are erroneous unto the faith, by forcing them to profess things that they do not believe and allowing them to practice things that the Gospel does not permit, it cannot be doubted indeed but such a one is desirous to have a numerous assembly joined in the same profession with himself; but that he principally intends by those means to compose a truly Christian Church is altogether incredible”

While we can understand the stress that compelled the two Fox employees to convert, the Western press has been too cavalier in announcing that the reporters were released unharmed. Forced conversion is a harm. As pointed out by Paul Marshall, “If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so.” Moreover, if the two now repudiate their conversion they are subject to the death penalty for apostasy.

The West has matured in that as a rule we no longer kill in the name of faith. Without criticizing Centanni and Wiig for reacting as most of us would have, perhaps we have lost something in an unwillingness to die rather to renounce our faith.

A Chicago Sun Times article by Mark Steyn “Why abduct us? We cede our values for free.” touched on the ideas presented here.

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