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Proselytism and Religious Liberty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 22, 2009

After finding U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan with Bibles that had been translated into two local languages, the Taliban warned Pope Benedict XVI in early May “to act to stop the foolish and irresponsible actions of the crusaders upsetting the feelings of Muslim rebels, without awaiting the consequences of a severe reaction.” The Taliban also exhorted “the mujaheddin, scholars and all religious circles to control the activities of the invaders and crusaders, and not allow anyone to preach religions except Islam.” The U.S. Army responded by noting that “any form of religious proselytism by troops is prohibited,” assuring the Taliban that the Bibles had been “confiscated and destroyed.”

Religious Culture

This story reveals a good deal about religious culture in both Afghanistan and the United States, and it raises some interesting questions. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the situation is that the Taliban should ask the head of the Catholic Church to put a stop to the religious activities of American soldiers. It is not to be believed, of course, that the Taliban really thinks the Pope controls religious life in the West, or that he can issue commands to the United States Army, but the warning reveals the mindset of a culture which believes that religious leaders ought to rule, and which chooses to portray the struggle in Afghanistan as a war of religion.

The choice to portray the war as centering on religious issues is faithful to Islam, which does not make the same distinctions as Christianity between sacred and secular, or even between private and public. For Muslims, the conflict is significantly religious, and there is nothing in life that the Islamic theocracy cannot touch. But precisely because all of life is seen in religious terms by the Taliban and its supporters, it proves very useful to portray the enemy as engaged in a Christian crusade against Islam led by the Pope. This is good PR. It plays well, presumably, in Kabul. Contemporary Islamic leaders, including terrorists, are no strangers to the techniques of propaganda.

As far as the United States goes, nothing could better illustrate the broken relationship between Christianity and public life in the once-Christian West than the image of American Christian soldiers eagerly carrying Bibles to Afghan Muslims, only to have those Bibles confiscated and destroyed by U.S. military authority. I do not say the military was wrong to confiscate the Bibles (more on this in a moment), but the destruction of the Bibles is highly symbolic, very likely a sign of things to come, and very definitely a warning to us all.

The battle to expunge Christianity from public life in the West is all but won, though it is part of a larger war that will be waged on both sides until the end of time. The confusion wrought by diversity, combined with the strong desire of Western man to live exactly as he pleases without having to be reminded that much of what pleases him is wrong, has ensured a largely successful privatization of Christianity in the West. Therefore, it is a paradox of Islamic rhetoric that, despite its portrayal of war as a “crusade”, Islamic leaders are antagonized first and foremost by the spiritual emptiness they so rightly perceive in Western life.

Religious Liberty

I suggested above that the United States Army was not necessarily wrong to confiscate the Bibles that had been prepared for distribution to Muslims in Afghanistan. Here we come up against questions of proselytism and prudence. The Church rightly upholds religious liberty because men and women cannot truly commit themselves to the truth without having a certain degree of freedom to first explore the truth. Any effort to pressure others into accepting a particular religious belief, whether through blandishments, bribes or threats, is a violation of human dignity. With this in mind, it can well be asked whether a foreign occupying force is an appropriate mechanism for direct evangelization. To the degree that “conversion” would be motivated by a desire to please the American military, this would surely be proselytism.

To the degree that the opposite reaction would occur, prudence suggests that Christianity cannot be well-served by uniting it intimately with military power. It is also a legitimate military consideration to try, during a temporary military campaign, to avoid making the situation worse than it needs to be by actions which can only increase tensions at the moment. Surely this is a case in which the best thing Christian soldiers can do is to engage as much as possible in a witness of love and service, according to the following words of the Pope himself:

A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God's presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. (Deus Caritas Est, #31)

At the same time, the decision to actually destroy the Bibles—to treat Scripture with such profound disrespect and to eliminate the possibility that these translations might be used at another time and in another circumstance—speaks volumes.

The whole question of religious liberty is enormously complex. This is part of the social teaching of the Church, which is often faulted for being exceedingly abstract (though, in fact, by its very nature it cannot be more concrete). Human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, religious liberty: These are wonderful concepts in theory, but what do they amount to in practice? Because of the infinite variety of human social, political, economic and cultural arrangements, including the customs and expectations of each community, there is no universal answer to this question. In each and every situation, it is up to men of good will to shape effective policies for the common good with deep attention to these principles.

What constitutes a degree of religious liberty compatible with the common good in a thoroughly Christian culture may be very different, in terms of pragmatic policies and laws, from the arrangements appropriate to a highly diverse culture. Policy-makers have an obligation to take into account the effects not only of coercion but of licentiousness on true interior freedom and the common good alike. Perhaps fortunately, the vast majority of our cultural circumstances are inherited. We do not build our culture from scratch; we largely receive it as a given, attempting to strengthen what is good and weaken what is bad. With the right principles in mind, and assiduously avoiding the legislation of intrinsic evils, it is up to policy makers to create a harmonious balance among all those legitimate factors which pertain to the common good.


Many an internal quarrel over the Church’s teachings on religious liberty could be avoided if people would only keep in mind the difference between broad principles and the specific and provisional way in which such principles take shape in concrete policies. There is no liberty or right in the lexicon of mankind that implies an absolute freedom from all constraint. But the same is true, in a different way, of the concept of proselytism. It is impossible to engage in religious witness on the one hand, or to consider converting in response to such witness on the other, in a complete vacuum. There will always be other factors at work: pleasant or unpleasant associations, material advantages or disadvantages, conveniences and inconveniences, risks and rewards —a list of considerations that are as complex as the interests, fears and aspirations of each human person, and as potentially diverse as the number of human cultures within which this drama of conversion can unfold.

There are different reasons to be (shall we say) over-sensitive on the question of proselytism, by which I mean using the “p” word to describe honorable religious activity. For the Christian, union with God is ultimately rooted in true freedom; by contrast, Islam is rooted in an understanding of “submission” in which inquiry becomes a threat. Another tradition typically hyper-sensitive on this question is Orthodoxy (whether Russian or Eastern), because it is so intensely territorial. One might well ask whether a Catholic is guilty of proselytizing among the Orthodox simply by virtue of bearing witness to his faith. This is reminiscent of the old joke: “If a man speaks in the forest where no woman can hear him, is he still wrong?”

Some Christians view all efforts to convert a person from one form of Christianity to another as proselytizing, arguing that it is a matter of stealing sheep to increase the influence of one’s own church or denomination. Proselytism here is not so much a matter of converting for the wrong reasons as attempting to convert for the wrong reasons; but the charge is extraordinarily unfair to those who recognize differences among Christian groups and believe that their group offers a fuller participation in the life of Christ. As always, the principle of religious liberty must be upheld within the parameters of due order.

The Taliban notwithstanding, religious liberty is both a true good and a complex social question. Nothing is to be gained, on any side, by railing at the Pope to put a stop to it. Yet there remains a great need for prudence, and a greater need for love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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