Harvard Divinity School and Non-Imposition of the Faith

John C. Rankin

(March 11, 2014)

When I was studying at Harvard Divinity School, I once presented a paper to a class on Religion and American Public Life, taught by the Dean of the School, Ron Thiemann. Part of my paper addressed the biblical ethics of choice, and I suggested that evangelical Christians, rooted in the order of creation, are uniquely free not to impose their faith on others. We rest in the conviction that we do not need to defend God’s truth, but it is his truth that defends our faith.

Accordingly, if we are secure in our faith, we seek to persuade only and simply because of the nature of God’s no-strings attached love for all people. I then said that the only ones who seek to force their beliefs on others, by whatever means, are those who are insecure in what they believe.

After my presentation was done, one student passionately protested. He was a self-defined “former fundamentalist,” who had headed up a Christian fellowship group on another Ivy League campus as an undergraduate. He said that if I truly believed there were a heaven and a hell, then I should take people like him and literally bang their heads against a brick wall until they believed. Such activity should be embraced to “save” people from hell.

My reply was that if I could or would do that, the only result would be a cracked skull. This young man had been severely burned by a legalistic fundamentalism that “shoved religion down his throat.” As I had opportunity to talk with him on another occasion, where I learned his story, he became open to the bibilcal definition of human freedom.