|Redefining America's Religious Tradition|
|Written by Roundtable Magazine|
|Saturday, April 23, 2011 01:56 PM|
America—a nation once considered primarily Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian—is getting a taste of secular values. A fundamental challenge for Americans today is confronting our country’s modern religiosity. The National Day of Prayer, a day of turning to God for reflection and meditation, was instituted by Congress in 1952 and has since been challenged by a federal judge. LGBT teen suicides have many reconsidering their stance on homosexuality, and Muslims are struggling to erect Islamic centers near Ground Zero as well as in other locations. These examples illustrate a departure from the fundamentalist stances of religious America and a push towards pluralism, or the idea that a peaceful society depends on allowing all lifestyles to thrive. While fundamentalism threatens to divide members of various communities, pluralists seek to unite them in order to maintain civilized debate and inclusive cooperation.
All citizens, regardless of their origin, creed, or identity, hold equal positions as Americans. Traditionally, there have been few limitations on what or who is considered “American”—and this tradition is worth preserving. This basic principle, however, is under fire by religious exclusivists, who counter America’s growing religious diversity by denying outsiders the right to participate in America’s religious culture. This view has a consecrated history in everyday language, as demonstrated by the exclusivist concept of the “Christian nation.” Exclusivism creates unity at the expense of America’s minority opinions, and these opinions need protecting.
The progressive preservation of equality is a product of pluralism. Eboo Patel, Presi- dent and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, explains that “pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus...Instead, religious pluralism is ‘energetic engagement’ that affirms the unique identity of each particular religious tradition and community, while recognizing that the well-being of each depends on the health of the whole.”
Pluralism is advanced through interfaith cooperation, the goal of which is to make knowledge of individual beliefs readily accessible through positive and productive interaction. Interestingly, nonbelievers are taking a leading role in this movement. Chris Stedman, Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, claims that “it is precisely because I am an atheist, and not in spite of it, that I am motivated to do interfaith work.” The popular conception that atheists are hostile towards religion is monstrously untrue. Even the aggressive Christopher Hitchens, a well known atheist, has said on record that given the chance, he would not end international religious belief.
As Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain for Harvard University, notes, “Would some atheists reject the concept of pluralism? Of course. But plenty of Christians reject it as well, and you’d hardly think of holding an interfaith meeting without Christians because of it.” Epstein believes that interfaith events that exclude the nonreligious are arbitrarily divisive and not truly pluralistic. Stedman agrees, and further argues that the religious should be willing to come to the defense of nonbelievers when individuals belittle nonreligious values. Progress is already being made in these areas; the Universal Society of Hinduism publicly defended atheists when Pope Benedict XVI compared atheists to Nazis, and even the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly has recently admitted that atheists are not immoral. If we want to end prejudice in America, we must advocate pluralist practices.
Recent legislation has called exclusivist values into question. For almost 60 years, Americans have gathered yearly in honor of the National Day of Prayer, a government-sponsored celebration of faith and unity. However, federal judge Barbara Crabb has questioned the legality of this event. Does this event actually encourage equal participation among all Americans, or does it lend itself to an unconstitutional favoring of religion? Crabb subscribes to the latter viewpoint and states, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on an issue that must be left to individual conscience.” It is also clear that the event is not a celebration of all American religions, but instead caters exclusively to Christians. An Indiana celebration in 2003 split into two separate events: one for conservative Christians, and one for everyone else. In 2005, invitations to participate in the Day of Prayer in Plano, Texas were extended only to Christians. That same year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force objected to an American Hindu woman leading a prayer.
This string of events demonstrates the clash between exclusivism and pluralism. Americans who seek equal representation for all citizens, regardless of their religious stance, have to contend with this exclusivist tradition. Crabb is right to contest the National Day of Prayer’s government sponsorship. America is set apart by a distinct cohesiveness that unifies greatly varying beliefs, and this is absolutely something to celebrate—but the National Day of Prayer does not foster these pluralistic values. Instead, it exacerbates tensions between religions and between the religious and the nonreligious.
For example, the conflict between Christianity and homosexuality could desperately use an injection of pluralist values. The issues of gay marriage and LGBT teen suicides in the last few years have created a painfully divisive wedge between fundamentalist Christian values and those advocating for progressive equality. At many gay rights rallies, there are progressive Christians who vehemently oppose legal equality for all LGBT-identified people on religious or moral grounds. But if the focus is turned to today’s mainstream evangelicals, the new progressives are those who fully accept homosexuality, and the fundamentalists are those who advocate a stance similar to the “love the sinner, not the sin” approach. While secular culture overwhelmingly continues to favor gay rights, outspoken fundamentalists have ramped up their rhetoric in response to what they view as antagonism towards their religious values. This process results in their radicalization.
Consider the recent controversy over censorship of high school senior Sean Simonson’s article, in which he asked students to reach out in support of LGBT youth. Administrators of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School banned the publication of Simonson’s article, offering this explanation: “This particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students.” While the general response to LGBT youth suicides by the majority of Christians is one of compassion, this is merely one example of the widening gap of opinion on the morality of homosexuality. Both sides want to prevent mistreatment and suicides among LGBT youth. However, only one side accepts homosexual identity as morally valid, while the other continues to condemn it as intrinsically immoral.
Fundamentalist Christians must ask themselves the following: Do we really want to stop teen suicide, and does our condemnation of homosexuality help or hurt that commitment? These questions are vital to the reconciliation between traditional fundamentalists and liberals. Plurality must also be accepted in order to foster civilized debate between the traditionalist and progressive communities. If homosexuality is to cease being a point of societal contention, exclusivists must abandon their combative and hostile attitudes regarding fundamentalist tradition and become more open to other opinions and stances.
Islamophobia is another form of exclusivity that has gained widespread media attention due to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Ironically, when news of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York was first publicized, it was barely noticed. When The O’Reilly Factor interviewer Laura Ingraham spoke to Daisy Khan, wife of Feisal Abdul Rauf (the project leader of the Islamic Cultural Center), there was no indication of controversy. In the words of Ingraham, who has repeatedly spoken out against radicalized Islam on her radio show, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it” and “I like what you’re trying to do.”
However, when Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim blogger and the Executive Director of Stop Islamization of America, framed the issue as an offense to the victims of 9/11 and a ploy to spread extremism in America, exclusivists began to take notice. She pitched her position to the mainstream media through the New York Post almost half a year later, drawing the fear and prejudice of an impassioned constituency. By distorting Feisal Abdul Rauf ’s intentions, Geller was able to promulgate this needlessly divisive issue in order to advance the goals of Stop Islamization of America.
The damage of religious exclusivity and marginalization has been done: hostility, insensitivity, and mischaracterization of the Muslim minority in America have fanned the flames of extremism abroad. Feisal Abdul Rauf began the Islamic Cultural Center in an effort to promote moderate Islam and prevent violent extremism from creeping into American society, but the effort by mostly right-wing evangelicals to suppress a religious minority in order to preserve and extol their own religious identity over another has undermined a genuine effort towards advancing international peace. It is an affront to our principles of equality when Muslims so willingly meet Americans halfway, only to be cut off by exclusivist thinking.
As religion grows in America, exclusivist doctrine must be repudiated in favor of impartial pluralism. Members of all faiths—as well as those of no faith—should work together through the interfaith movement on an equal playing field, and we should not be surprised that nonbelievers are being included.
Americans should stand up to prejudice, even when they are not personally being marginalized. Only through pluralism can we defend universal equality, a principle that is simply not attainable through exclusivism. The pluralist movement, secular in principle, should be encouraged and developed as a catalyst of individual and communal growth in America. By these means, we can live up to our most progressive motto, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), and leave the exclusionist motto, One Nation Under God, behind.