To complete our series on Jean Bethke Elshtain’s First Things articles before tonight’s Erasmus Lecture, we’d like to highlight this two-part discussion of proselytization and religious tolerance from our November 2002 issue. (Paul J. Griffiths wrote the first part and Elshtain the second.) As Elshtain notes,
There was a worm in the apple from the very beginning of the move for toleration. If one traces that beginning from John Locke’s classic Letter on Toleration one discovers that in order for religion to be tolerated it must be privatized. There is a realm of private soulcraft, a realm of public statecraft, and never the twain shall meet. In the religious domain, one answers God’s call. In the civic realm, God doesn’t figure directly anymore. One’s fidelity is pledged to the magistrate. Should the magistracy egregiously overstep its bounds, there is always the “appeal to heaven” and the possibility of revolution. . . .
This privatization, even subjectifying, of religion feeds into the bad odor surrounding any hint of proselytization. Proselytizing seemed at best bad manners; at worst, a way to try to force something on me that I do not want, am not interested in, but may be gulled or intimidated into accepting. The general animus against proselytizing flows from a conviction that those driven in that direction will, almost invariably, be persons of strong religious conviction: those, therefore, who, should they become dominant, would move to end the very toleration that has made their open proselytizing possible. So, in the name of preserving a regime of toleration, we must not tolerate unrestrained proselytization.
Read the rest for Elshtain’s analysis of the mistaken beliefs underlying this mindset and for her vision of what genuine tolerance entails.