Conversion by the Sword

Recently, I thought back to an event here in Harrisonburg with Dinesh D’Sousa.  At one point during the speech, he mentioned how it was a good thing that his ancestors were converted to Christianity (presumably not as a result of their own wish) as it resulted in his faith today.  Regardless of whether or not I remember this moment and its implications correctly, I wanted to discuss the issue of conversion by the sword.

Some people claim that when it comes to Christianity, it is perfectly acceptable to convert people using any and all methods possible, including force.  I completely disagree.  Although this tactic may, on the surface, appear to accomplish your goals, such an act actually damages both the convert and the faith as a whole.  Where, I ask, does it recommend the use of threats and/or force to spread the Christian message?  Can anyone find me a quote from Jesus advocating such a plan?  Shouldn’t one’s religious choice be made through spiritual desire as opposed to duress?  Now certainly, as a Christian myself, I believe that Christianity is the one true faith, but far too many have committed wicked acts to supposedly advance the cause.  History is replete with examples of supposed Christians forcing their beliefs on others through compulsion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, colonization, and imperialism all spring to mind.  Even Christian groups violently fought each other: the Thirty Years War, the Huguenots against the Catholics, the Spanish versus the French, and Northern Ireland, just to name a few.  How, as Christians, can we condemn the radical elements that advocate violent conversions and executions in Hinduism, Islam, and other religions when we do not reject the practice in Christianity too?  But wait, Joshua, it’s ok because we know that we are right!  Really?  What would Jesus say?  More importantly what would Jesus do?  Did he tell his followers to convert by the sword, or did he say, “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword”?  (Matthew 26:52 NLT)  If one of the two most important commandments is supposedly, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:40 NLT) how can you justify persecuting your neighbor and promoting bodily harm should he or she either not be Christian or happen to follow a differing denomination?  Would you do the same to yourself or your own family?  Is killing adults so that you can raise their children as Christians acceptable?  How about kidnapping or starvation?  Is perverting the original message through violence right if it swells the ranks of the faithful?  When it comes to Christianity, do the ends justify the means?  Although one can point to numerous examples of such behavior in the past, I cannot condone violence done in the name of Jesus.

For some reason, it seems perfectly socially acceptable to promote the ideals of democratic governance through force as well.  In World War I, we were supposedly fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”.  In the civil wars in Vietnam and Korea, we were fighting to preserve a democratic government from the forces of Communism.  In a more recent example, the conflict in Iraq, we were fighting to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.  As George W. Bush stated in 2005, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.”  Although Americans would likely agree that democratic government (or, at least, what we think of when we say democratic government) is the best form of government, how should we go about promoting this belief?  Early in our nation’s history, we thought that leading by example was the best method.  John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, echoed American thought when he stated in 1821, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart….Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.”  Unfortunately, American leaders began to break free of this historical mooring and fought not for their own freedom, but sacrificed her children for the sake of others.  For examples, one need not look further than the conflicts mentioned in the early part of this paragraph.  Promoting democracy aggressively became a sort of religious zealotry.  Did, as Wilson suggested, the world need to be made safe for democracy?  If we had not entered World War I, would our government and way of life been either constantly imperiled or destroyed?  We held the same mistaken beliefs during the struggle against Communism with the Domino Theory.  Despite the logic of some leaders, the rise of Communism in some far eastern country would not necessarily lead to Communism in America.  After all, less than twenty years after losing the Vietnam War (or achieving “Peace with Honor” if you prefer), the entire Soviet Union collapsed.  And yet, this downfall did not come with some great and heroic military victory over the Red Army, but rather through the inherent weaknesses of the Communist system coupled with the desire for freedom from many of the nations and citizens trapped under such a regime.  Rather than learn from history, our leaders, such as President Bush, prefer to repeat past mistakes.  Although I would agree that a democratic government in the Middle East would be of value, some people pushed for war to establish such a government.  They pointed to the murderous atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein as justification, and then created a conflict that took the lives of about a hundred thousand Iraqi men, women, and children.  When we push our government on others (especially the unwilling ones), do we not lower ourselves to the level of tyrants, dictators, and imperialists?  Is democracy so great that an outside power can create it militarily and not create resentment regarding its bloody birth?  I certainly think not, though history shall prove the final judge.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate my earlier points.  Even though there are many differing viewpoints in this world of ours, and the prevailing trend is to remain silent, one should not be hesitant to properly promote and articulate one’s own thoughts.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the issues of both personal and state religion and politics, one should not and must not resort to the temptation to use the sword to convert one’s neighbors, be they either foreign or domestic.   To do so would be a gross perversion and betrayal of the original principles of both Christianity and American democracy.  Can’t these pillars stand upon their own merit or should we drag them through the mire of coercion, tainting them and their adherents further?  Don’t the notions of freedom, liberty, and love teach better?

The Conservative and Democracy

In several recent comments, Mike D. has made a handful of points stating that conservatives should have a rather hostile view toward democracy as granting political power to the people can result in a lot of non-favorable results for the conservative mindset.  There is certainly some merit to this argument, but first I feel the need to clarify an important point.  First, you have to understand the fact that our country was not really founded as a democracy and is not really a democracy today.  “How can this be?” you ask.  Well, what is a democracy?  Historically there have been two types of democracy, direct and representative.  Direct democracy is a system whereby all voting citizens are allowed to vote individually on each law or rule that the state wishes to enact as well as create legislation.  This sort of democracy is rare by today’s standard, as a populous country such as our own would find the system to be quite unwieldy.  It does exist, to some extent, in states like California with procedures like the referendum, but it is certainly the exception, not the norm.  Obviously we do not have a direct democracy.  How about a representative democracy?  A representative democracy is one where by voting citizens elect representatives to promote their interests in some sort of national assembly.  Do we have that kind of government here? Yes, we certainly do; however, we are still only a quasi-democracy.

One very important feature of democracy is the idea of majority rule.  Whatever side has 50% +1 of the votes, be it through direct democracy or representative democracy, can enact whatever legislation they wish regardless of the wishes of the remainder of the population.  Believe it or not, many of the founding fathers did not want the government to be democratic and held a dim view of democracy.  As James Madison put it in The Federalist #10, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention, have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property, and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”.  I am very thankful that we do not have majority rule, as do traditional conservatives.  But wait, we do have majority rule here.  Not so, the reasons why we do not include the constitution and its amendments, checks and balances, and federalism.  Although I run the risk of sounding like an episode of School House Rock, let’s start with checks and balances.  The United States Government as well as every state in the union (with the exception of the unicameral Nebraska) has both upper and lower houses of government.  In order for a basic bill to pass, both houses must approve it by majority.  After that, it is still not law, as the executive (be it the president or the governor) has to either sign or veto it.  If it is signed, it becomes law while if it is vetoed, it will not, unless both houses of the government can pass it again under a super majority (typically two-thirds or three-fourths).  After that, if challenged, the Supreme Court can rule the law to be in violation of the constitution and therefore it is no longer law.  This system of checks and balances serves the interests of the traditional conservative quite well, as a bill must pass through a significant number of hoops in order to become law, and defeat for any bill is quite likely.  Compare our system to that of the United Kingdom.  Their system is much closer to the democratic ideal of majority rule.  In Great Britain, they too have two houses in their parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  The real power rests with the House of Commons.  The House of Lords, unlike the Senate, cannot defeat a bill and can only return it to the House of Commons for further consideration.  In addition, their Prime Minster, unlike our President, is the leader of the majority in the House of Commons.  He, by definition, is supported by the majority in the House of Commons and therefore approves of the majority decisions.  In the U.S., divided government is quite common.  How many times in the last twenty years has one party controlled the House, Senate, and the Presidency?  It happened for a couple of years under George W. Bush, and from 1992 to 1994 under Bill Clinton, never under George H. W. Bush or even Ronald Reagan before him.  In addition, in Britain, the courts have no power to declare laws unconstitutional.  Yes, the system of checks and balances in our national government and state governments certainly stifle the prevailing winds of majority rule.

Then we come to the issue of the Constitution.  Supposedly the Constitution lays out what sort of powers the government does and does not have.  If you read the Constitution, the expressed powers of the federal government are very limited, and, as the 10th Amendment reminds us, powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people.  Should the Federal Government create laws that exceed its authority then supposedly, if challenged, the Supreme Court should declare the law an illegal usurpation of power.  Unfortunately, for the most part, the Supreme Court has fallen down on its duty.

Another stumbling block for majority rule again, closely tied to the 10th Amendment, is federalism and the power of the states.  It used to be that if a state government had determined a particular law was in violation of the Constitution or the state’s laws, the state could simply ignore the law.  John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was the most vocal proponent of this principle known as nullification.  In addition, as Mike D. points out, there was also the idea of secession.  Should a state feel that the federal government was too far out of line with the wishes of its citizens, the state could secede, or withdraw from the union.  This was an option that was not to be taken lightly, but certainly served as an ultimate check against federal tyranny and usurpation.  Regarding the idea of secession, you may not know that one of the earliest discussions of secession occurred during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  Unlike the more famous example in the 1860s, the states in question were in New England.  They were concerned that the purchase of the Louisiana Territory was unconstitutional and would severely weaken the influences of their respective states.  In response to this threat of secession, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1803 “God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better” and in 1804 “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part” which were markedly different responses than the one given by Lincoln some fifty years later.  After the war, the Supreme Court in Texas v. White ruled secession to be unconstitutional.  Despite this ruling, the idea of secession still exists.  Secession groups exist in a number of states today, with some of the most vocal in the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

So, I suppose the take home message for this article is that we do not have a truly democratic government because we lack the critical component of true majority rule.  As to Mike’s statement, “The vote seems to be a problem for the conservative worldview because its very existence indicates a possibility for disagreement or potential change.” I would answer, sure, changes can happen, but they can do so under any form of government.  What if there was no voting?  Dictators can change the laws easier than any other form of government, but of course we are not a dictatorship.  Unitary, majority rule democracies like Great Britain can make sweeping changes too, but fortunately, we aren’t that kind of government either.  In countries where voting actually counts, voting serves as yet another critical and important check against our leaders.  Although our form of government is not by any stretch perfect, I believe the idea of quasi-democratic republic, protected from the fickle whims of the majority through the adherence of checks and balances, the Constitution, and federalism, serves both the nation and the conservative quite well.