By Cherilyn Crowe
“If you want to be a religious exclusivist, you need to be a political pluralist.”
Molly T. Marshall brought a fresh look at competing religious liberties as she delivered the 2016 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State.
Speaking amidst snow flurries on the campus of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Marshall focused on understanding religious liberty in the reality of religious pluralism. She then applied those concepts to the situation in Myanmar, using its political climate as a case study on preserving religious liberty for a Christian minority.
The president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, Marshall has spent 30 years working in theological education, and she shared from her personal experiences both at home and abroad during her presentations.
“Religious pluralism presents new challenges and opportunities for strengthening religious liberty,” Marshall said as she emphasized the critical task of cultivating respect for religious practices.
“Respect for the religion of others is more than simply tolerating religious difference; rather, it draws from the common affirmation of the dignity of humans and the right to religious liberty.”
Marshall noted that, as a Baptist, she gets nervous when the political realm speaks too much about religion. “It is the role of the state to create a context where religious pluralism can flourish; it is not the role of the state to impose or favor one religion over another.”
Marshall shared her personal story of awakening to the reality of religious pluralism, realizing that her childhood was so insular that her circle “barely acknowledged that there were other ways of Christian faith.”
She discovered that, throughout the Bible one can see “the Spirit nudging those of the covenant to transgress boundaries,” explaining that scriptural narratives stress making room for the stranger as well as the religious and ethnic other. She gave a few examples: Jonah’s grudging proclamation to Nineveh, Philip’s Bible study with the Ethiopian eunuch, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman and Paul’s affirmation of the ministry of Lydia.
“Religious pluralism sharpens the challenge of strongly holding one’s own belief while at the same time defending the rights of others to hold other beliefs – or none at all.”
If religious freedom is a fundamental human right – as outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Marshall said religious belief and practice must be voluntary. “All religions that hold that human beings have inviolable dignity because God created them and loves them will be able to embrace this argument for religious liberty,” she said.
“But the complicating reality is, if you’re going to be a religious exclusivist, you need to learn to be a political pluralist,” she added. “And that’s where it gets so difficult.”
“A political pluralist allows there to be a variety of religious liberties that don’t have to compete with one another.”
In contrast, Marshall described political exclusivism, defining it as the “attempt of the state to impose religious belief” and provided examples, such as the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay colony that punished those not following the Puritan interpretation of God’s laws. She also offered more recent examples, such as experiments in Egypt and regions of Indonesia where radicalized Islamists seek to enforce a version of Sharia law on religious minorities.
In her second lecture, Marshall focused on one country currently constricting the free exercise of religious minorities: Myanmar.
Formerly known as Burma, a newly elected government in Myanmar is bringing hope for change. A frequent visitor to the country, Marshall follows its political progress closely.
Speaking only days after the new government’s installation, Marshall provided a glimpse of Myanmar’s oppressive history of military control. Made up of many ethnic tribes, more than 85 percent of the country is Buddhist, and adherents to that faith have special privileges in the country.
Laws passed just before the fall elections limit the rights of religious minorities in Myanmar. They include a religious conversion law, requiring a Myanmar citizen who wishes to change religion to obtain approval from a registration board. The process involves an interview – often including humiliating questions – and a period of religious study.
“In this time of unprecedented political transition, I am eager to learn how the new government will deal with the ongoing contraction of religious liberty for Muslims and Christians,” Marshall said. She provided an example for Myanmar leaders looking to forge the right path: Roger Williams.
Briefly a Baptist during the colonial era in America, Williams’ view of religious liberty for all and the protection of minority voices was groundbreaking, and it continues to provide guidance for many today.
“In all of American history, no one has argued for such radical freedom of conscience,” Marshall said, reminding the audience that Williams once said forced religion “stinks in God’s nostrils.”
Marshall called the crowd to stand up for religious liberty in Myanmar as well as here at home.
“Baptists have made religious liberty a hallmark of our faith, and it matters that we stand with other Baptists – especially those in Myanmar – who face severe constriction of free exercise.”
While on campus at Bethel University, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker spoke at a chapel service, giving students an overview of religious liberty and the work of the Baptist Joint Committee.
This year marked the 11th installment of the annual Shurden Lectures, which were endowed by Walter and Kay Shurden of Macon, Georgia, to take religious liberty discussions to campuses. Designed to enhance the ministry of the Baptist Joint Committee, the series focuses on inspiring and calling others to an ardent commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The 2017 Shurden Lectures will be on the campus of Campbell University in North Carolina.