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What Happens When the Tide Rolls In

In the world of organized religion, centralized authority is rolling in at full tide, while at the scattered edges of the globe the freedoms of the faithful ebb away.

Consider these episodes:

American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church recently gathered in the nation’s capital to retreat from their bold defense of sexually abused children. They had laid out such policies in Dallas earlier this year, under significant pressure from Catholic laity, especially the families of the abused.

But the Pope and his associates in Rome had the final say.

The bishops could do little but acquiesce to the Vatican. Their statements of explanation were thin and weak. The public, inside and outside the Catholic Church, understands that the freedom of American Catholics is always trumped by the authority of those higher up the ecclesiastical chain.

Lest anyone think my critique is unfair, I turn now to my own tradition.

The Baptist vision of the Christian life has, over the years, given priority to individual freedom in matters of faith and morals. We call it the “competency of the soul before God.”

Over the last 20 years, however, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest and most influential of the various Baptist groups) have demonstrated that such emphasis on freedom has gone too far.

In September, they fired long-term missionaries in Brazil, Chris and Karen Harbin. The couple dissented from a doctrinal statement that had been written seven years after their appointment as missionaries.

The Harbins were given two weeks and two days to leave the country with all belongings; they were provided only one additional month of salary as severance.

The mission authorities argue that the freedom to think and teach threatens the identity and continuity of Baptist mission work in the region.

But again, such rationalizations are thin and weak, and the watching public recognizes that this also is a case of a centralized religious authority flexing its muscles.

But it is not just Baptist and Catholic Christians that live under the increasingly assertive restrictions of a religious bureaucracy.

Hashem Aghajari is a Muslim scholar on the history faculty of Modarres University of Tehran. He is also a well-known war veteran, having lost a leg and suffered chemical burns in the Iranian war against Iraq.

In a speech last June celebrating the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Aghajari called for a reformation of the political and religious processes of Iran. He was arrested, charged with apostasy and treason, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The word “islam” means submission, but too often Muslim clerics confuse cheerful obedience to God with forced subservience to human authority.

These three episodes are different, to be sure, but all three share at least one thing in common: religious authorities reversing, rebuking, repudiating or retaliating against people whose ideas are not in step with those who hold power.

Catholics in America, Baptists in the South and Muslims in Iran have protested the actions of the authorities, but to no avail. The tide runs too strong.

The great English (and one-time Baptist) poet John Milton wrote, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience sake, above all liberties.”

The exercise of freedom in things of the spirit is at low ebb in too many religious communities of the world, and it is sad.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.