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The Ebb and Flow of Religious Freedom

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In Afghanistan these days, people are cutting their beards, lifting their veils and playing music. It is all part of the “wild and worldly” celebration that broke out as the Taliban was run out of town.

It demonstrated how people of faith reassert their personal freedom following the fall of another regime of religious zealots.
Religious history offers many examples of these Taliban-type dictators. They think God demands that freedoms be suppressed, that ordinary people not be trusted to live and think on their own.  They are sure they have been appointed by divine dictation to determine what the people should believe and how they should behave. They are called to enforce their views of morality with a summons, a shackle and even a sword.
Christians have a long history of such coercion.
For more than a thousand years, European Christian kings and queens routinely suppressed religious dissent. Thousands of people, including Jews and Muslims, were forced to convert to Christianity.
Religious freedom was at the center of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther refused to submit his conscience to the ecclesiastical authorities, and for that he was excommunicated and spent much of his life in hiding. 
Dissenters like Balthasar Hubmaier gathered congregations that advocated the separation of church and state as the only road to religious freedom. He was burned at the stake. 
But his followers, often called Anabaptists, together with Mennonites, Swiss Brethren and a rag tag alliance now known as the Radical Reformation, continued to assert this notion of freedom. After 30 years of warfare among the Christian states of Europe, the idea of religious freedom began to take root. 
Thomas Helwys, an English pastor, appealed to King James I: “The king is a mortal man, and not God, [and] therefore hath not power over ye immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them.”
Roger Williams of Rhode Island and William Penn of Pennsylvania established colonies in America that practiced freedom of conscience and faith. The success and popularity of their experiments with religious liberty led to its enshrinement in the political documents of the American and French Revolutions, and in this century, the United Nations.
It took Christians 1500 years to learn these simple lessons: spiritual coercion corrodes human society; the union of religious fervor and political power is a bad marriage; and true religion flourishes when given a free and open environment.
Islam is now 1300 years into its history, and too many Muslims still want political authorities to enforce religious convictions. They need their own reformation.
Christianity, Islam and even Judaism have common roots and similar histories, not only in ideas and practices, but also in matters of religious freedom. And political power has seduced all three.
Are other religions susceptible to the same deadly disease? What if those who worship nature, or ancestors, or nothing at all used force to establish conformity. What if eastern religions, such as Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism also denied the soul its freedom to reason, worship and to live according to conscience.  
Is it just the religious traditions of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed that take advantage of power?
All of this has taken an ironic turn in America these days. Some religious leaders are responding to the religious violence of the East by advocating a form of religious coercion in the West.
While 90 percent of Americans freely turned to prayer in response to recent national tragedies, a small minority wishes to introduce such practices back into government-directed entities, such as schools, courts and legislatures.
A new professor of education in Kentucky recently told a group of ministers of her practice of prayer in schools while she was a principal. Now she teaches graduate students to assert their right to lead prayer with students. She seemed certain the group would praise her boldness. 
It didn’t.
Her concern and compassion in the midst of emotional and spiritual distress is understandable. But as the initial expressions of religious coercion in a government institution, her tale was a troubling one.
Folks in Afghanistan are feeling the first trickle of a stream called soul freedom and are leaping for joy.   What the world needs is a fresh wave of religious liberty.
Dwight A. Moody is Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.