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Who declared open season on public religious speech?

It seems to be open season on religious speech in the public arena.

Two weeks ago, a group of religious leaders called for a “moratorium on religious rhetoric” from presidential candidates, attacking candidates who shared their personal faith on the campaign trail.

A few days earlier, the FCC issued a ruling discouraging noncommercial educational TV stations from offering “programming primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs.”

Southern Baptists, meanwhile, have spent much of the past few months fending off criticism for their efforts to convert Jews and Hindus to Christianity.

It’s ironic that in a culture where almost every kind of expression—from pornography to taxpayer-subsidized art mocking religion—is treated as sacrosanct, attempts to share one’s religious faith are now being declared strictly verboten.

Some of the concerns that have been raised about religious “proselytizing” are understandable. Although I’m a Christian, I’ve never cared for the hard-sell approach to spreading the gospel. And as a political scientist who studies religion in politics, I doubt the wisdom of making one’s faith central to a political campaign. Politics should focus on securing civil justice, not saving souls.

Nevertheless, I find the current hostility to religious evangelism profoundly disturbing. This includes attacks on the missionary activities of the much-maligned Southern Baptists. According to The Seattle Times (“Baptists’ high chutzpah,” editorial, Sept. 11), which condemned Baptist efforts to convert Jews, “The Baptists should learn to respect the values and privacy of others.” A group of religious leaders in Chicago has gone further, recently urging Southern Baptists to cancel plans to send missionaries into their city this coming summer because seeking to convert others “could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes.”

Missionary activity a hate crime?

Apparently yes, according to the new, politically correct view of religious liberty being offered up by guardians of a completely secular public arena. According to their view, people are free to believe in their own religion, but they shouldn’t try to persuade anybody else of its truth, especially if the other person already has religious beliefs.

One wonders how far the proponents of this view are willing to take their reasoning. Do they also think that people shouldn’t share their political beliefs with those from a different political party? After all, someone might be offended.

Most Americans would recognize the patent absurdity of such a proposal.

Why then are some people willing to countenance the stifling of free discussion and debate in religious matters?

One reason seems to be a fear that religious speech can be abused. But every kind of speech can be abused, and we place very few limits on free speech in other cases. The fact that newspapers sometimes print libelous information does not mean that they ought to be subjected to government censorship. The fact that political arguments can be passionate and even nasty does not mean that we should prohibit people from advocating their political views.

In the same way, the fact that religious discussions can sometimes become heated or uncharitable does not mean people should not have the right to try to persuade others of the truth of their religious convictions.

A free society requires a free marketplace of ideas, and that marketplace should include the right to exchange our religious beliefs with each other just as much as it does the right to exchange our opinions about politics, music and sports.

If one becomes offended by the efforts of certain people to spread their religious doctrines, the proper response is not to attack their right to do so, but to join them in the marketplace of ideas. If Southern Baptists seek to convert Jews and Hindus, then Jews and Hindus should try to win over Southern Baptists—a point made recently by Jewish writer Yosef Abramowitz, who argues in the journal Moment that the Jewish community should challenge Southern Baptists to debates so that people can “decide for themselves which system has more value.”

Part of being human means grappling with the hard questions about the ultimate purpose of life—the sorts of questions religion challenges us to confront. Those who think a person’s religious beliefs should not be the subject of robust debate and persuasion are in effect saying that these questions do not matter.

Some of the greatest minds of Western civilization would have begged to differ. Figures such as Dante, Rembrandt, Bach, Newton, and Dostoyevsky explicitly proclaimed their religious faith in their works. One could even say they “proselytized” for their particular religious views. Yet, civilization was enriched, not destroyed by their advocacy of religious ideas.

What would those who propose cleansing religion from our conversations have us discuss instead? Pokemon and Beanie Babies? Banishing religion from our debates merely invites the further trivialization of American life.

Efforts to share one’s religious beliefs ought to be conducted with respect and charity. But let’s drop the double-standard that implies that religious speech is somehow entitled to less robust protection than other kinds of speech.

John G. West Jr. is an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.