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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Smith: LOSING OUR RELIGION

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Several years ago, citizens of the world’s only superpower became increasingly concerned about a religion that was spreading like a virus. Most people – including politicians – were adherents of the much older, dominant religion. (The notion of “separation of church and state” was laughable.) They looked down on those who practiced this strange, encroaching, “unsophisticated” faith.

Eventually, scholars began to write papers as to why the “other” religion was inferior. (One reason is that they saw it as merely an amalgam of superstitious and preposterous beliefs from the East.) People who practiced this newer religion were not only considered to be heretics; as the religion grew they were considered by many to be a genuine threat to the government and to the broader society. The entire social and political order seemed to be at risk.

The superpower? Ancient Rome. The upstart religion? Christianity.

Initially, the Romans regarded Christianity as merely a Jewish sect that provoked strife among their vassals. Even as the faith began to distinguish itself from Judaism in the first century, government officials – including emperors – initially reacted to Christianity with benign neglect. Of course, as the Bible says, Jesus and His disciples “turned the world upside down”. Thus, the (pagan) Roman Empire eventually metamorphosized into the (Christian) Holy Roman Empire. Catholicism officially became the state religion under Emperor Theodosius I in the year 380, supplanting Religio Romana (literally, the “Roman Religion”).

I am a devout Christian. Indeed, having grown up in church, I am a so-called “cradle Christian.” (Though I am now nondenominational, my Baptist roots run deeply). I can’t imagine practicing a religion that I do not believe is absolutely true. Christianity, like Islam, makes claims to exclusivity as regards issues such as the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the manner in which people should live their lives.

I am also a loyal American. Though my faith is infinitely more important to me than is my nationality, I am committed to the democratic ideals upon which America was founded – despite the fact that many of our founders would balk at African Americans participating fully in this political experiment.

There are at least two reasons for my disposition. One is philosophical. Namely, I fear theocracy – even if Christianity were the state religion. Why? If I were to be honest, it’s because I couldn’t be sure whether the tenets of the Christianity in which I believe would be the same as those of a state religion. It is very disturbing to me that even the most central teachings of the faith (e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth, His divinity, etc.) are “optional” in various quarters.

The other reason is practical. There is no way to completely halt the spread of other religions – and no one should even attempt to do so. The Chinese government’s despicable brutality towards Uyghurs, which some consider to be genocide, has not eradicated that culture and religion. In any case, freedom of conscience is a gift of God; trying to extinguish that is blasphemy.

As was the case in ancient Rome, a significant number of Americans fear that our “empire” is slowly collapsing. There are multifaceted threats: internal economic decay, out of control political infighting, bellicose external adversaries, foreign “invaders” crossing our borders (even legally) – and a strange, encroaching, “unsophisticated” faith. In my view, some of those threats are more credible than others. Of course, one great fear is that Islam could conceivably challenge Christian hegemony in America at some point in the distant future. I think that is incredibly unlikely given the rapidly declining rate of belief in institutional religion among Americans.

One of the best ways to ensure a brighter future is to diligently examine the past. Unfortunately, history is something about which Americans have rarely been particularly fond, outside of jingoism and “happy talk.” Yet, we would do well to learn what history teaches us: Whether in a dictatorship (or other authoritarian government), in a monarchy, or in a democracy, religious pluralism will eventually prevail. It is incumbent upon Christians to do our part by lovingly sharing our beliefs – and then have faith that God will take care of the rest.

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