For a long time, the western world has largely accommodated competing religious views with a "whatever floats your boat" mentality. Religious pluralism has been respected, and the right to choose one's own faith, or no faith at all, has been protected. Occasionally, tensions between competing points of view have run high, but differences have been generally resolved peaceably. As long as one's religious views didn't impinge on someone else's rights or unduly infringe on the sovereignty of the secular civil sphere, most any religious viewpoint has been accommodated. Indeed, in an era that has exalted postmodern individualism and religious relativism, robust criticism of religious views have been generally deemed to be in bad form - unless, of course, you happened to be Bill Maher or a pundit for CNN or MSNBC and were targeting Catholics or Christian fundamentalists.
In the last decade, however, the West's lassiez faire attitude towards religion has been challenged. On September 11, 2001, Islamic extremists, animated by their faith, committed mass murder in the name of jihad, and the world was changed forever. In the aftermath, the United States has been faced with a challenging conundrum: How to reconcile freedom of religion and religious pluralism with a deep-seated suspicion of a religion that - at least in some theological circles - mandates the murder and/or forced conversion of non-believing infidels?
According to Dictionary.com, religion is defined as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe." Religion, then, deals with ultimate questions, and every religion purports to hold the key to ultimate truth. But, those keys unlock very different doors. Take the three Abrahamic religions for example. All three believe in one holy and almighty God, but this is where doctrinal unity comes to an end. Jews and Christians both recognize as true and canonical the books of the Torah but part ways with regard to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ, on which point Jews share with Muslims the belief that Christ was a great prophet, but certainly not the son of God. Christianity, for its part, is riven by various doctrinal differences too numerous to mention. Glenn Beck (cable news megastar and darling of the Tea Party movement) and Mitt Romney (former Governor of Massachusetts and current aspirant to the White House) subscribe to Mormonism, a religion that parts ways with orthodox Christianity with regard to the nature of God, the person of Christ, the nature of man, and the way to salvation. Indeed, most Christians view Mormonism as a heretical cult.
These theological divisions have been at the heart of many controversies and conflicts over the centuries, and they continue to spark divisions today. As the anniversary of 9/11 looms and national tensions are running high, news of a Florida church's plan to burn the Koran in protest against Islam prompted a plea for restraint from General David Petraus and the State Department. Writing for Townhall magazine last week, columnist Michael Gerson pointed out that antagonism towards Islam - often led by evangelical Christian leaders - relies upon dishonest caricatures of the faith, jeopardizes the constitutional principle of religious liberty, and is antagonistic to the moral and ethical dictates of Christianity.
Mr. Gerson was understandably apprehensive about the provocative act set that (almost) occured in Florida last Saturday, and the State Department was justified in making the case that the burning of the Koran would directly jeopardize American diplomacy and the safety of our troops in the Middle East. But what is equally disturbing, however, if somewhat less obvious, is the growing sense that there is no room in our society for vigorous public debate about the merits of different religious viewpoints. It is considered rude and presumptuous to challenge the veracity of a competing religion's beliefs.
Assuming, however, that there is an ultimate truth and that truth is knowable, an attitude of ambivalence with regard to religious belief is not prudent. One thing that the major religions do agree on is that there will be eternal consequences for the choices we humans make in the here-and-now. Faith in the true God will be rewarded, and error condemned. Therefore, no Christian, or Muslim, or Mormon for that matter, should be content to practice their faith in a vacuum. Those of us who believe in ultimate truth as ordained and embodied by God are compelled by our faith to make the case for our faith to the whole world. To remain silent is to allow the possibility for grave error to go unchallenged and the possibility for eternal reward to go unclaimed, or worse, for eternal punishment to be suffered.
The blessing of America is that we live under a constitution that celebrates the right for each and every person to speak freely in service to their deepest held beliefs. We should not allow any distorted sense of political correctness, or fear of militant reprisals, discourage us from exercising this cherished right. If we do, we may one day be forced to choose our faith at the barrel of a gun.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty" He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
This article originally appeared September 13, 2010.