Few issues relating to religion and global politics are as controversial as proselytism. Even those sympathetic to religion’s place in politics are often reluctant to take the final step of giving the nod to proselytism. Those who are skeptical see proselytism as the quintessence of the problem with religion. Political Science Ani Sarkissian of Michigan State, a rising star in the study of religion and global politics, then, argues boldly in claiming that proselytism is closely associated with the rights, freedoms, and representational mechanisms that are the bread and butter of liberal democracy. She writes the following in a post for Arc of the Universe:
Proselytization—the act of trying to change the religious beliefs, affiliation, or identity of another individual—is a controversial issue in discussions of religious freedom. On the one hand, proponents argue that proselytization is a human right, akin to the rights of free expression and conscience. On the other hand, proselytization brings up difficult questions regarding how to balance the rights of some groups to expand their faith versus those of others to protect their traditions. Although international law does protect the right of individuals to change religion, it also allows for limits on coercive attempts to convince others to convert. This leaves open to interpretation how states regulate proselytization.
My current research examines the relationship between restrictions on proselytization (and related activities such as conversion, foreign missionaries, religious publications, and public preaching) and various measures of democracy in countries around the world. Using data from the Pew Research Center, I find that restrictions on proselytization lead to lower quality of democracy. Restricting proselytization is related not only to restrictions on association, organization, the media, cultural expression, academia, personal discussions, property ownership, economic opportunity, and personal social freedom, but also to how well democratic procedures—namely, elections—are followed.
As laws against proselytization fall under the category of limits on expression, they affect both the procedural and rights aspects of democracy. Procedurally, restrictions on expression curtail political competition by reducing the number and variety of voices in the political marketplace, thus limiting political choice at the time of elections. In terms of democratic rights, restrictions on religious expression can signal a regime’s unwillingness to tolerate other expressions of civil rights. This suggests that restrictions on religion are fundamentally motivated by politics rather than theology. I expand on this argument in my forthcoming book, The Varieties of Religious Repression: Why Governments Restrict Religion, and will continue to explore the topic of proselytization in greater detail in the upcoming months.