Conscience or compromise?


To tolerate or not to tolerate? That is the question as we enter the 21st century. Will moderation and reason prevail, or will the 'might makes right' of political and religious extremism cast us headlong into a century of chaos?

Webster's Dictionary defines tolerate: 'to allow the existence, presence, practice or act (of something) without prohibition or hindrance.' And it defines freedom as: 'the power to make one's own choices or decisions without constraint from within or without.'

Freedom and tolerance go hand in hand. In order to maintain one's own freedom, he must tolerate the rights of others to practice without hindrance or constraint their freedom of conscience even when that practice seems to him unconscionable. One's freedom must end where another's rights begin, or tyranny becomes the order of the day.

Personal conscience may need to compromise at freedom's door if freedom is to survive.

It is in this area of conscience and compromise that our Founding Fathers demonstrated remarkable wisdom. Knowing that religion is largely based on faith or belief rather than on sensible evidence, they sought to avoid in the framing of the Constitution and in the workings of our government any semblance of an orthodox view of God and religion. No individual's, nor any group of individuals' religious denomination's interpretation of God and His requirements for salvation was ever to be imposed on the peoples of this nation. It was therefore shocking to me to hear one of the candidates currently aspiring to be our next President promising to amend our Constitution to bring it into accord with God's law, - meaning by that his religious denomination's interpretation of God's law.

To hinder or to attempt to constrain others from enjoying the civil rights one claims for himself is to place in jeopardy the civil rights of all of us, no matter how justified one might believe his reasons to be. Under our Constitution, each individual has the freedom of conscience to believe whatever he chooses; but does that right extend to imposing his personal religious beliefs on others, even if he can muster the political power to do so? Is that within the spirit of our Constitution? Where does the the religious freedom of a democracy end and the tyranny of a religious majority begin? Religious orthodoxy is the death of religious freedom.

From the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus and Darius in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, down to the present-day United States of America, history teaches us that pluralism and tolerance produce world-dominant, culturally rich societies, whereas ethnocentrism and intolerance, if they gain momentum, destroy them. Religious zealotry or extremism, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic, by abandoning the spirit of their teachings and focusing on the letter, can never bring this fractured world together, nor can they ever realize the promise these teachings contain: 'for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.' (II Corinthians 3:6)

James Coleman is a resident of Lake Oswego.