President Obama has been tireless in speaking about and promoting religious tolerance. Our religious diversity, he contends, is a source of our strength, so long as we act in accordance with our heritage of religious toleration. Here’s how he put it in his Inaugural Address :
[O]ur patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Now, there have been days on which and ways in which I have been tempted to agree with this statement, but the more I think about it, the less I like it. If the President had said (as his predecessor did ) that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, I would still be applauding heartily. If I could attribute to him the words of the old hymn , I might sing it with him.
And yet the fact that he seems to assimilate religious differences to racial differences is troubling, as if religious disagreement has some deep kinship with bigotry. The point of pluralism is not to efface difference, but to accommodate it. In a fallen world, that’s the best we can expect.
Indeed, the ways in which President Obama and his Administration have pursued this goal have left me cold. Consider this almost unreadable passage from his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships recommendations , issued in March of this year:
It is important to note the emphasis President Barack Obama gave in his Cairo speech to improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world. This report has a section emphasizing this important goal, even while upholding and encouraging the overall objective of religious inclusivity and the broader goal of working across religious lines with all peoplereligious and nonreligiousto foster understanding and encourage cooperation. The ever-greater religious diversity within the United States is a national asset that can be coordinated by principled multireligious and multistakeholder partnerships with the U.S. Government to build a healthy culture of pluralism, marked by respect for distinct religious communities, active and positive relationships among them and nonreligious communities, and a commitment among all groups to build a healthy, diverse, and shared society.
To be sure, the report contains language that calls upon us to “respect religious differences” and “preserve the identity of every religious community.” This is at least somewhat reassuring.
But the devil is in the details, so to speak, which brings me (at long last) to the reason for this post. Did you know that there will be a White House-supported “Interfaith leadership Institute” in Washington, D.C. later this month? The organization behind this Institute, which will bring 300 people together is the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core , headed by Eboo Patel , a much-celebrated moderate Muslim bridge-builder. I assume that he is the author of IFYC’s guiding idea :
Religious pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance for diversity and requires that we build positive relationships and work with one another. It is a state in which we respect one anothers’ religious identity, develop mutually enriching relationships with each other and work together to make this world a better place.
Here’s what IFYC does to try to carry this idea into practice:
There are millions of religious young people in the world interacting with greater frequency. That interaction tends either toward conflict or cooperation. Where so many of these interactions tend towards conflict, the Interfaith Youth Core aims to introduce a new relationship, one that is about mutual respect and religious pluralism. Instead of focusing a dialogue on political or theological differences, we build relationships on the values that we share, such as hospitality and caring for the Earth, and how we can live out those values together to contribute to the betterment of our community.
Much of this sounds anodyne, but I am compelled to make a couple of observations. First, note the characterization of shared values—environmentalism and “hospitality,” which I take as shorthand for welfare and immigration policy. Can we talk about disagreements here, or is the “movement” only open (hospitable?) to those who share particular visions of how to proceed with regard to these issues? Second, note the deprecation of talking about differences, as if such talk is dangerous because it (necessarily?) leads to violence. Genuine pluralism, it seems to me, requires conversation about difference. And while attending to difference has in the past (and indeed in the present) occasionally led to violence, it need not do so . Conversation is not a simply a precursor to violence, but also an alternative to it.
Perhaps the reason for IFYC’s deprecation of conversation about difference can be found in this blog post :
The problem of the 20th century, said W.E.B. DuBois, was the problem of the color line. We made progress on that problem by getting our perspective right, recognizing that the color line didn’t divide black and white but, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, those who want to live together as brothers from those who want to perish together as fools.
The challenge of the 21st century is the faith line. We have to bring King’s perspective to the issue of the faith line. The faith line doesn’t divide Muslims and Christians. It divides the forces of hope and inclusiveness from the forces of fear and intolerance. Reza is right: Amjad Choudry and Franklin Graham are on the same side of the faith line.
Let all the people who want to spread fear - whether they pray in Arabic or Hebrew or English or not at all - have their coffee and their intolerance with each other.
Let the rest of us get on with building a civilization based on equal dignity and mutual loyalty.
Here we have again President Obama’s questionable equation of race and religion. Added to it is a demonization of those who do not embrace an agenda of “hope and inclusiveness.” We can’t talk about our differences because to do so is to oppose “a civilization based on equal dignity and mutual loyalty.” For the sake of this end, we have to submerge, privatize, and ultimately trivialize our “distinctives,” as some of my evangelical brethren so charmingly put it.
Do others find this as chilling as I do?