This post draws on a talk originally presented at Georgetown University, during a symposium sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Video of the event is available here.—ed.

“Proselytism” is a form of religious expression with a mind to change another person’s beliefs. Anti-proselytism laws prohibit that sort of behavior. But what sort of behavior are we talking about?

Decent laws and sound moral reasoning exclude trying to change another’s beliefs by force or fraud or where the effort is incompatible with parents’ rightful authority over their children. That sort of thing is not at issue here. Tom Farr’s question is about “win[ning] adherents by persuasion,” not by trickery or by duress or by pied-pipering kids.

Basic components of religious liberty are not at issue either. Sound reasoning and good law protect (to take the phrasing of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18 ) religious “worship, observance, practice and teaching”—in private and in public, alone or in community—against state interference. These activities constitute “religious expression” if anything does; and any of them could be engaged in, at least partly, for the purpose of converting others. Commonly, they are.

For “proselytizing” rarely involves any sort of explicit “ask” or plea for conversion. I am not sure about Islam, but its expression may have parallels to the universal extension and propositional character of the Christian kerygma: Christ died for everyone’s sins, yours just the same as mine. The greatest missionary this world has ever known did not proselytize by asking people to convert. Saint Paul instead told people how things really are. Or (to paraphrase and to adapt the prologue to Luke’s Gospel), Paul gave his audiences “an orderly theological account of the things which had been accomplished among us, so that they may know the truth and, by knowing the truth, may come to believe it.” People neither then nor now respond very well to hectoring and table-thumping. How would—could—a proselytizer do better than to ask an audience today to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or to ask them to read of one day in the life of Mother Teresa, or to show them a streaming video of the many Christians who flocked to Port-au-Prince earlier this year.

In any event, the spirit blows where it wills.

The distinguishing feature of proselytizing is an aim that typically supervenes upon “ordinary” religious expression. It is an accompanying mental state, or maybe just the unintended effect of bearing witness to the truth of one’s faith. Proselytizing is not an observable form of distinct behavior, and so anti-proselytizing laws are quixotic and notional, or they are certain to sweep up more elemental religious expressions—teaching, preaching, worship—which are eminently deserving of protection. This is enough to establish that these laws are unjust, and no additional evaluative premises would be needed to establish that they would be deemed unconstitutional in any American court.

No doubt, some missionaries are so aggressive that they need to be restrained by just laws against forcing conversion. But, more often, the problem (where there is one) is that they are annoyingly persistent and self-righteous. These folks should be corrected and ignored; they should not be arrested. Almost all missionaries are guilty of a peculiar Original Sin, namely, they present their own cultural instantiation of the faith—Irish Catholicism, say, or Midwestern evangelicalism—as part and parcel of the gospel. This Original Sin naturally leads to unjustified criticism of local customs and folk traditions which are not incompatible with the faith.

Of course, anti-proselytizing laws are not so vulnerable to criticism as it may seem so far. These laws are a corollary of anti-conversion strictures. Together, they form a coherent matrix much more real than notional, especially where they are supplemented by laws against apostasy. What justification is on offer for the matrix? Proselytizing is often criticized under the generic rubric of “interfering” and even “attacking” other religions, usually indigenous ones honeycombed with folk traditions. What sorts of behavior does the larger criticism refer to? And what are the pertinent norms for judging the validity of that criticism?

I’ll take up the latter question first. John Witte poses it in this way: “How does one craft a legal rule that respects Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish or Traditional groups that tie religious identity not to voluntary choice, but to birth, caste, blood and soil, language and ethnicity?”  The authors of an essay in Rosalind Hackett’s recent collection, Proselytization Revisited, assert that “it seems logically impossible to interpret the principle of religious freedom in a way that is neutral between religions like Islam and Christianity and the traditions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains” (their emphasis).

The authors are scandalized by this “impossibility.” Should they be?

I think not. Why should we expect the “principle of religious freedom” to be “neutral” about the freedom to talk to others about what is true and what is not true? The “principle of religious freedom” protects “worship” in “groups,” for example. Many religions involve no worship at all and are relentlessly individualistic. Does the thought that religious liberty is therefore unjustly partisan leap to mind? Religious liberty also protects belief. Religions which define themselves otherwise—by ethnicity or place of birth, for example—are not thereby victims of bias.

The core claim circulating in the above quotation is, I think, that “religious freedom” ought to be about “religious identity,” and that it should, then, (somehow) be neutral as to various modes of establishing that “identity.” This is not the law anywhere I know of, and there is little critical support for such a position. One reason for the scarcity of support is that “identity” is not a perspicuous term. It is, in any event, a decidedly non-neutral proposition.

The matrix is also sometimes justified by appeal to norms of fairness—that evangelical religions (such as Islam and Christianity), which claim to be uniquely true, have an unfair advantage in recruiting compared to religions that make no equivalent claim (such as Buddhism and Hinduism).

The appeal of truth is surely different from the appeal of the putatively more vulnerable religions. But it is scarcely apparent which sort of appeal is, all things considered, more, well, appealing. It seems to me that the appeal least likely to win adherents is precisely that the body of teaching is simply true, most especially where (as with Christianity) the truth claims include promises of hard times in this life for believers.

Let’s take a careful look at more developed justifications for the matrix.

We get glimpses of more substantial defenses in such drive-by reports about anti-proselytizers as John Witte’s, which asks, “How does the state balance one community’s right to another person’s or community’s right to be left alone to its traditions?” Tom Farr frames the question in terms of a “right to win adherents by persuasionbalanced against a “right of communities to defend their respective traditions.”

Here is a short but nonetheless packed version (also from the Hackett volume) of these terse verbal signs:

[Attempts] to proselytize are experienced as violations of the integrity of a community. Since ancestral practices are considered to be the common inheritance that holds a community together, any denunciation of them as false religion and idolatry is viewed as an attempt to destroy the social fabric. From this perspective, successful conversions to Christianity and Islam create tears in this social fabric. Religious conversions disintegrate communities and families by drawing individuals away from these ancestral traditions. … [A] stance on non-interference is central to those traditions.

Here we have ample reason for caution before criticizing, for we can see at a glance that important questions about religion, social solidarity, and, perhaps, an acidic sort of individualism are involved.

We are painfully aware of how little we understand about the cultural unity which a political society today requires for fruitful collaboration among its members, a cooperation which cannot be secured solely through the coercive means of law, a cooperation which should not be attempted by state-driven ideologies of collective identity, a cooperation which must include spontaneous willingness to sacrifice one’s interests for the good of others, even at very great cost to oneself. Religion supplies one way to thicken these bonds; a shared and, yes, a stable faith can generate community.

We are also painfully aware of the fragility in many places of peace among different religious groups, and of the special difficulty of sustaining collaboration for common purposes across religious boundaries. Proselytization is in some places a source of such conflict; prohibiting it may be a means of keeping the peace among contending religious groups.

Now, the embeddedness of religion in culture and in social life is an undeniable and, in general, a welcome fact. Pope John Paul II once wrote: “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.”

But the late Pope’s observation does not imply approval of any static or closed culture; and, in fact, John Paul II often spoke enthusiastically in favor of a critical theological culture and never uttered a word of approval for any state establishment of religion, even where Catholicism was, or might have been, that religion.

Abdullahi An-Na’im argues that the proselytization question involves an individualistic conception of freedom of religion, which “cannot adequately address the concerns of communities about proselytization and its consequences.” What’s needed, he says, is a “dynamic and creative understanding of collective rights.” I agree that international legal norms of religious liberty and the local constitutional law of many western countries is deficient—perhaps even gravely deficient—when it comes to comprehending and protecting institutional religious activity.

There is a great deal more that could be said about the compact but rich passage I quoted above. Here, I shall make one further comment, and it is a very critical one: If one thinks of religious liberty in the way that the authors of the fuller defense evidently do think of it, then you end up decapitating it. The duty of any political community to respect religious liberty as it is defined in countless constitutional, legal, and, yes, religious documents, and the extension of this duty, even to people whose beliefs and practices are largely false or misguided, is rooted in the basic moral (not legal or social) duty of everyone to seek the truth about reality, including reality’s furthest reaches—which reaches transcend the concerns of the political community itself. The political community’s duty is further rooted in everyone’s moral duty to shape his or her life according to what one judges to be the truth about reality. From here—this foundational ground—one can see straightaway that anti-conversion and anti-proselytizing laws strike at the heart of religious liberty.

From here, you can see, too, that if one thinks that religious liberty attaches to an established social order in which religion plays an important role, and if one credits reports that even peaceful encounters with articulated alternate conceptions of reality are “experiences” of attempted “destruction,” then one might well affirm some putative right to “non-interference.” But then one will have drifted very far from a sound understanding of religious freedom—the understanding on offer in so many authoritative documents—and one will have abandoned its foundations altogether.