In the USA we are accustomed to say that we have religious freedom, because the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us. That amendment forbids the Congress to set up a state church and fund it by taxation. It also forbids the Congress from enacting laws interfering with free expression of religion. Our country has a legal foundation of religious freedom.
The country of Djibouti likewise has legal protection of religious freedom. In fact, the government has a history of enforcing the protections of religious freedom. The constitution allows citizens the freedom to belong to any religion, but the culture is another matter.
The state religion is Islam, and more than 99% of the population of about 700,000 is Muslim. Christians number approximately 15,000, and many of them are expatriates. Few citizens are Christians. The major challenge for Christians living in Djibouti is the cultural response to proselytizing. In keeping with Islamic teaching that conversion from Islam to any other religion is a terrible sin, family and friends exert powerful pressure against any attempt to lead a Muslim to convert to Christianity. In 2009, it was reported that a few small Christian missionary groups were active, but the public view is that Christian evangelism is an affront to Islam.
The word “proselytize” is a civil term used to talk about the work Christians call “evangelism.” Christians consider Christ’s command to make disciples and baptize new believers to be the most important work of the church. Non-Christians call this work “proselytizing.” Christian testimony to the good news that Christ died to forgive sinners and reconcile them with God is the central feature of Christian living. Christians in any culture feel compelled as a normal part of living their faith to tell non-Christians about Christ in the fervent hope that they will believe. In Djibouti, the culture forcibly resists all efforts to lead Muslims to Christian faith. The pressure is so severe that Open Doors USA reports that new believers whose former religion was Islam are fearful even to tell close family members about their conversion.
The culture of the USA is not immune to the same sort of pressure. For more than two hundred years, Christianity was the dominant religion in the country and the dominant force in the culture. Christian holidays felt natural to everyone, and Christian ideas dominated the language and the moral turf. Today, however, immigration of Muslims and growing Muslim communities around the nation make Islam a more powerful force in the culture than it was as recently as 1992. Even as Islam enjoys the First Amendment protections that have permitted it to thrive despite minority status in the culture, today Muslims are publicly advocating for increased accommodation of Islamic practices such as women wearing headscarves and the provision of footbaths and prayer rooms for students and workers. There is even pressure to prohibit behavior and speech construed as criticism of Islam or satire directed at Mohammed. These trends keep the friction between Islamic culture and Christian culture at a high level.
Christians in the US are already under secular pressure to keep their religion behind closed doors. Many secularists maintain a “live and let live” attitude toward religion. For them, Christianity and Islam are equally primitive manifestations, but they don’t see religion as a threat. However, some secularists aggressively advocate not freedom of religion but rather, freedom from religion. This element of our culture would like to remove all public evidence of religious faith and practice.
The presence of a growing number of faithful Muslims in the US population puts pressure on Christians in a different way. The cultural resistance to proselytizing in Djibouti is an expression of an important teaching of Islam . Because the US and Djibouti both have a civil law code that allows people to choose and change their religions at will, nobody in either country can be convicted in court and executed for converting from Islam to Christianity. Nevertheless, in either country, family and friends can bring severe pressure to bear on any Muslim who might convert. Muslims in the US do not generally express revulsion toward Christianity, but neither do they welcome effort to win converts from within their communities. The more Muslims in the population, the more pressure for Christians to stop trying to make disciples in obedience to the command of Christ.
Religious freedom is important. Every human being has the right, granted by God at creation, to choose whom he will serve. The culture of the USA has always been a blend of many faiths and many ethnicities, and our nation has benefited from all the different contributions. Under the stress of international tensions created by terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslim adherents, both Muslims and Christians have heightened sensitivity rooted in their very different world views. Christians teach that we are to love all people, but it is easy to forget that teaching and get caught up in pejorative rhetoric. We cannot in good conscience advocate full freedom of religions expression for all citizens if we are simultaneously engaged in vulgar name-calling instead of reasoned public discourse.
The apostle Paul wrote to the church in ancient Rome, a real crucible of cultural blending, and said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18) It was people who were shaped by that sort of teaching who wrote the First Amendment. They did not write it in an attempt to impose Christianity on unwilling converts. They wrote it to assure that people of all faiths could live in peace together. The First Amendment pushes back against secular pressure to shut down all faith expressions or against the pressure by one religion to shut down the faith expressions of other religions or against pressure by any religion to shut down rejection of all religion by any individual. For more than two hundred years this constitutional protection has prevented the kind of oppression and even violence that plague many nations. Nigeria, for example, is beset with ferocious, deadly violence as an expression of a desire by Boko Haram to eliminate Christians from the population. Bhutan is beset with similar violence by Buddhists.
The USA has hitherto been a model for religious freedom while keeping the public dialogue about the details of that freedom open and active. Our religious freedom is an integral element of the climate of freedom in this country. The freedom to live and speak and teach our most fervent convictions has been a magnet to people all over the world who yearn for that freedom. In countries where a single religion or ideology suppresses all other ideas, the yearning for freedom drives people to extreme measures to escape suppression and flee to freedom. How important is religious freedom? It is profoundly important. The men who wrote the US Constitution believed that if a power had not been ceded to the federal government, then it remained with the states and with the people. However, in recent years the federal government has made numerous creative inroads on that constitutional principle. By means of creative rhetoric, aggressive federalists have eroded even rights specifically granted to states. The history of our Supreme Court, documented in numerous cases, makes it clear how important the First Amendment is to the climate of religious freedom in which American citizens thrive. How important is religious freedom? Ask the citizens of Nigeria and Djibouti.