Bhutan’s proposed anti-conversion law makes me feel fortunate to live in a country with a constitutional separation of church and state. My sincerest apologies to Texas conservative, David Bradley, who rejects this very fundamental of American civic tenets – this separation exists, and for good reason as the government of Bhutan is so aptly demonstrating. Not only do I feel fortunate for the first Amendment, the likes of David Bradley and the Kingdom of Bhutan fuels my desire to see it protected at all costs from those who would defile it.
Mahayana Buddhism is the official state religion of Bhutan. It is so linked to their cultural, social and political lives that Buddhism is a part of their national identity (something Christians will claim for the United States) and therefore the government seeks to protect it (their culture) by limiting the growth of Christianity which, to be fair, can be a vociferous and tenacious religion. Its evangelical nature is part of what makes it such a pain in the ass for those of us not inclined to buy into its party line. But, free speech is free speech, something that both the constitutions of the United States and Bhutan allegedly afford their respective citizens.
One must challenge this proposed law and ask the Bhutanese government if this is the type of behavior the Buddha would have condoned. Not being an expert in Buddhism I can only surmise that the so-called middle way of the Buddha included tolerance for those who espoused different worldviews. The Buddha would have rejected the political double speak of the Bhutanese constitution that purports to guarantee freedom of religion to its citizens and a law that is being directed toward one particular religious group. This is not “right speech” in action as the eightfold path requires. In fact the small contingency of Bhutanese Christians may have a good case in claiming persecution as do Christians in India.
American fundamentalists who believe Christianity in the United States has long been under assault need to take heed. You have no idea of what true persecution really is. Try living in Bhutan or even worse, India or Iran. There are places in this world where people trying to openly practice their Christian faith put their lives and the lives of their families in jeopardy. Domestically what you experience is loud disagreement over ideology, but no one is persecuting you. And if you leave the first amendment alone no one ever will. At least no legally and you will have recourse to the law if they do.
The potential threat to Bhutanese Christians is very real. As it stands now all someone has to do is make a formal complaint to the government against a Christian in order to get arrested, fined and possibly even worse. India has a history of using its anti-conversion laws to persecute Christian groups unfairly. While, I do not subscribe to the tenets of the faith there are many Christian groups that have done good such as the late Mother Teresa.
The government of Bhutan recognizes other non-Buddhist religious groups within its borders, which includes Hinduism, animism and other shamanistic cults. It shows tolerance for these groups. It’s clear that Christians are being singled out.
Many of my fellow non-theists might ask me why I even care. Simple – along with freedom of religion should come freedom of speech (something else that the Bhutanese constitution allegedly affords its citizens) and the liberty to express one’s ideas openly. This is a key pillar of liberty as we here in the United States understand it. I am not suggesting that we export our brand of democracy as the Neo-Conservative movement believes we should, but as members of the world community we need to be on guard for potential human rights violations when these types of laws get passed. Sadly, Buddhist nations aren’t necessarily any better than the rest of us in this area.
Claiming that multi-religious tolerance can lead to bloodshed and violence as has occurred in India is not an excuse for persecution. But, this is exactly the point that Bhutan’s Home and Culture Minister, Lyonpo Minjur Dorji is suggesting. It certainly suggests the dangers of irrational worldviews as most religions seem to be. But, most of India’s problems in this regard are political and cultural ones dressed up religious clothes.
If anything this should reinforce the necessity of creating secular states and removing religion from the political process altogether at least as far as the government taking an official stand. Let’s face it as long as people practice religion it will be part of their decision process when it comes to voting (at least in democracies such as the United States), but we can seek to eliminate its tendency to dominate and usurp power. But, this can only be done by separating religion from government at the foundation.
The next time an evangelical Christian challenges me on a social issue and suggest I try living somewhere else to see how I like it I will kindly suggest they move to Bhutan or Iran. Meanwhile, I am going to thank the very god I don't even believe in that our nation's founders had the wisdom to ratify the First Amendment.