Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is sad when someone you care about threatens to do a foolish and destructive thing.

In this case, it is not a relative or a friend but a country. Uganda has endured the rule of a psychotic -- dictator and cannibal Idi Amin -- and a pandemic that decimated a generation. Its people responded with courage and faith, and the two are related. When I think of cheerful compassion in the midst of suffering, my examples are Ugandans.

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But now the Ugandan parliament is considering legislation, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, that would impose new and harsher penalties on homosexuality, including life imprisonment, as well as forcing pastors and others to report homosexuals to the authorities. Ugandan Christian leaders are key supporters of the bill. They misunderstand an important commitment of their own faith.

Pluralism and tolerance have advanced in countries with a Christian cultural background, not in spite of religious belief but largely because of it. It is a teaching of faith that human beings are ultimately responsible for their souls to God alone. The Protestant principle -- "Here I stand, I can do no other" -- implied a limit on both religious and political authority. No one can ultimately coerce the conscience, and no one should try.

It took long centuries for this radical idea of religious and moral autonomy to work itself out in the political realm. But it found expression in the American founding. We refused to be a "Christian nation" precisely because the founders held a broadly Christian view of human beings, who are subject to God and their conscience, not to the state. Pluralism is not a temporary or tragic compromise; it is the proper way to treat men and women created free and autonomous in God's image.

This principle does not require a complete libertarianism. Some individual choices are legally prohibited as inherently exploitative (statutory rape or using child pornography) or destructive to the very idea of freedom and autonomy (drug use or voluntary slavery). A single worker drunk on gin is generally a matter of indifference to the state. A large portion of the British working class drunk on gin in the 18th century -- catching their arms and legs in looms -- required regulations on the sale of spirits.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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