"Against Coercion," a Commentary by Martin E. Marty

December 11, 2006

Author: Martin Marty

Source: Sightings


Two events this season led me to go back to the Sightings archive, to a column dated October 29, 2001 ("Listening to Lactantius"). Giving evidence of our passion always to be current, we cited Lactantius from the years 302 and 303, because what he wrote then spoke so directly to current affairs. Incident one here is the flap over new Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who brought the Qur'an along when he took the oath of office. Some howled that this was outrageous in this Christian country. While the use of the Bible at oath-taking time has always been voluntary, never coerced, using any other book, it was said, blasphemes against the God of America and demeans the tradition of godly Americans.

Incident two won't end until December 26, when partisans will begin to gear up for next year's "December Wars," when devotion to Christian Christmas gets upstaged by verbal war-makers. One side wants Jesus-Christmas to be privileged and officially sanctioned in the "public square." The other wants a Jesus-free public square. While tempted to wish a plague on both their houses, I choose to tilt, by reference to Lactantius, for a theological angle and one side.

The public can fight over whether there is or is not enough Jesus-Christmas in the department stores, the malls, the corridors. A half hour in such places should move one to pity the clerks who have usually sappy versions of Jesus-Christmas songs bombarding their ears all day, depriving them and their customers of any chance to experience awe and wonder. Some in the public, and many in the opinion-world, however, want Jesus-Christmas to be privileged in the official public space and in the times that belong to the whole public. If we do not "coerce" the Jesus-presence, it is asked, how can American tradition survive? Is not all this a shunning of God?

Enter Lactantius, anticipator of James Madison, 1,400 years in the offing. Both of them, wrote Robert Louis Wilken, had a "religious understanding of religious freedom." Wilken also quoted the Vatican II bishops who preached "that the response of people to God in faith should be voluntary .... In matters of religion every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded." And then Lactantius -- the "first Western thinker to adumbrate a theory of religious freedom rooted not in notions about toleration but in the nature of religious belief."

Those who wanted Congressman Ellison to be a hypocrite, or to deprive him of his scripture, usually profess to seek sincerity in religion and attachment to sacred books, even if his was the "wrong one." It's not mine. And coercing people to be obeisant to a god in whom they do not believe would, in Lactantius's terms, be "inimical to the nature of religion." The man of 302-303 asked, "Why should a god love a person who does not feel love in return?" Scholar Elizabeth DePalma Digeser cites Lactantius: "Those who strive to defend religion with force make a deity appear weak." And anyone who lacks the requisite inner conviction is "useless to God."