Expressing Faith in Modern and Roman Times

There has been a considerable amount of recent high profile discussion about the wearing of religious symbols in public. First was the comment by the Cabinet Minister, Jack Straw, that he preferred to see the face of his constituents when they came to his surgery for advice. Then came the case of the languages teaching assistant who has been disciplined for wearing her veil in lessons and now a BA employee has been asked to conceal her cross under her uniform, and not have it prominently exposed.

These debates centre on the extent to which the expression of personal faith should be accepted in the public sphere by society at large. The freedom of religion, enshrined in international human rights agreements, has specifically been said to include the external expression of religious belief, in other words you are not just free to choose a belief in private but should not be discriminated against because you do it in public.

Religious believers have different ideas about what is central and fundamental to their faith. There is no expressed requirement in Christianity to wear a cross or crucifix, though witnessing your faith is part of the idea of discipleship. Many millions of Muslim women do not choose to cover their face in public or in the presence of men, but some do. This is not a case of absolute moral laws but rather a tension between the individual conscience of the believer, and the norms of society.

Tensions between conscience and community expectations in religion have a long history. Men and women have refused to be involved in war efforts, sometimes a great personal sacrifice, because of religious convictions about pacifism. People have given their lives rather than break what they considered to be the dictates of their faith. It was precisely this which meant that some Christians, living in Roman times, faced punishment and execution when they refused to swear oaths to the Roman Gods. The practice of swearing oaths to those Gods was used by Rome to ensure cohesion and unity across the Empire. They did not prohibit people from worshipping their own Gods, so long as Roman Gods were also acknowledged. The peace of the Empire rested on this point of consensus and one could not have people failing to offer the Roman Gods their dues as that would endanger the prosperity of the Empire as it might bring about the wrath of the Gods. Allegiance to the Roman Gods was the common ethic underpinning the Empire. Today the UK has a more secular flavour but still has an idea of some common norms and today, these are in tension with religious identity and conscience.

The questions which we must face now are the extent to which the common consensus of behaviour exerts itself over individual religious conscience, and the extent to which individuals are allowed to express their religion publicly in the manner of their own choosing. We might hope that the way these disagreements are resolved are somewhat different from the roman punishments of Christians.

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