Religious intolerance: Politics is the problem
Fresno Bee, March 24, 2012
Is there one true religion or any reason to tolerate people from another religion? I discussed this question with Professor Yehuda Gellman the other day in Jerusalem. Gellman is a Jewish philosopher who defends the idea of “religious exclusivism.”
If you believe that your religion possesses the true and only path to salvation, then you are an exclusivist. The opposite of exclusivism is “pluralism.” Pluralists think that the world’s religions are each aiming in the same direction. Pluralists want to include diverse religions rather than exclude them.
One of pluralism’s greatest defenders was John Hick, a theologian who died just last month. Hick thought that the world’s religions had common “spiritual and moral fruits.” He denied that any single religion had an exclusive claim upon truth or salvation. Instead he thought that each religion approached God in way that is colored by local culture and tradition.
Hick quoted the Sufi poet Rumi to make his point: “The lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond.” In Hick’s own words, there is a “rainbow” of faiths, with each religion refracting God’s divine light in its own way.
Professor Gellman understands Hick’s pluralist ideal; he knew Hick personally. But Gellman believes that the Jews have an exclusive relation with God as the chosen people. Gellman surprised me, however, by arguing that exclusivists can be tolerant.
He argued that there is no necessary connection between exclusivism and intolerance. An exclusive commitment to a loving and gentle religion can lead to peaceful interfaith relations. If you believe that your religion is the one true religion, but you also believe that your religion commands you to tolerate others, then you should be tolerant.
Gellman embodies this tolerant and loving spirit. He is a kind and thoughtful man, who is involved in interfaith work in Jerusalem.
Within hours of speaking with Professor Gellman, I was reminded that many exclusivists are not so generous or reflective, as I saw the video of Pastor Dennis Terry introducing Rick Santorum in Louisiana. How disappointing that religious intolerance is rearing its ugly head back home, while I am studying it here in Israel.
In case you didn’t see it, Pastor Terry said: “This nation was founded as a Christian nation… there’s only one God and his name is Jesus… Listen to me, if you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I have one thing to say: Get Out! We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”
Terry’s rant shows us the danger of religious exclusivism. If you believe that your God is the only God, then it makes sense to lash out against religious believers who do not love your God or your idealize image of a Christian nation.
The problem here is not Christianity itself. There is a tolerant and loving message in Christianity. Jesus taught: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned.” The problem is not Christianity but politics. Politicians have used Christian ideas to suppress unpopular minorities since the time of Constantine, the first Christian political leader.
History shows us the danger of mixing exclusivist religious belief with political power, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust. Politics and religion must be kept apart. We should be outraged when a Presidential candidate nods in agreement with a preacher who says to the Buddhist and Muslim citizens of the United States: “Get Out!”
Gellman’s solution to this problem would be to remind us that even Christian exclusivists can find reasons within their tradition to be tolerant. Hick’s solution is to ask us to remember that there is a common source behind the rainbow of faiths.
I’m not convinced that there is anything beyond the rainbow. And I worry that even tolerant religions easily become intolerant, when they become political.
The solution, then, is not religious. It is political. Despite Terry’s rhetoric, the real reason to love America is that it is not a Christian nation. The reason to love America is precisely that you don’t have to “get out” if you don’t like the way other religious people think.