Lawyers and doctors, detectives and journalists are some of the professionals whose success hinges upon the proper use of questions. Knowing what to ask (and when and how) is often the difference between winning and losing, between life and death, between true and false.
So as a journalist I ask: Will the question recently posed on the front cover of a national news magazine help the public understand the issues?
“Should Christians Seek to Convert Muslims?” the headline blared.
It is the wrong question, I contend. It is a religious question rightly debated among ministers and theologians of a given faith, instead of by journalists.
It is wrong, also, because it is framed too narrowly. There is a better way to present the issue: Should any religion seek converts from any other religious group?
After all, many religions are missionary: that is, they seek to secure the conversion of both unbelievers and those of other faiths. Statistics demonstrate that Muslims are far more successful in their missionary work among Christians than Christians are among Muslims.
But most importantly the front-cover question is wrong because it avoids a far more fundamental issue, one that is at the heart of civil society, political science, and religious life: Should every person be free to change their religion?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in December of 1948. In 30 articles it summarizes the basic and inalienable rights of people everywhere.
Among these rights are: life, liberty and security; national identity; legal remedies for wrongs; the presumption of innocence; ownership of property; work for just and equitable pay (to name just a few).
Some rights have to do with change. A person has the right to change residence, nationality, marital status, employment and, most importantly, religion.
Article 18 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The freedom to change religious allegiance is a fundamental human right. It is not granted by any government or authority, but rather is the possession of every human being by virtue of existence itself.
I believe this right is rooted in the freedom of our Creator, the God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, maker of heaven and earth, father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is free, and God has bestowed this quality upon each person.
The freedom to worship and believe is first: the freedom to change religious affiliation is second: the freedom to speak and declare your faith is third: and finally comes the freedom to seek the conversion of another.
Thus, the most fundamental questions are these: Are people free to worship, and are they free to convert?
In vast stretches of human society this freedom is restricted: by Orthodox Christians in Russia, by Orthodox Jews in Israel and by Muslims in numerous states of the Middle East.
All of these entrenched authorities fear that religious freedom (including the right to convert) will entail a loss of political power and cultural influence for the established faith. It is, then, a political rather than a religious issue.
Journalists should join with diplomats and theologians around the world to ask the only questions that matter: Are the people in our jurisdiction free to pursue the faith of their choice? Or do religious and political leaders put up barriers of fear, danger and even death?
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.