Saturday, June 29, 2013

Secular Approaches to Interfaith Part Three: Interfaith and Tolerance

Quaker Mary Dyer was tolerated, until she wasn't.
Interfaith, at its core, is about tolerance, and what could be wrong with that?

Here in Rhode Island we are celebrating the 350th anniversary of our state's charter, and our long, historical tradition of religious freedom through a series of events entitled "The Spectacle of Toleration" that is being co-sponsored by the Rhode Island and Newport Historical Societies as well as other groups. Tolerance is a fine word and seemingly a fine aspiration, but the word also carries connotations rife with privilege and elitism.

Professors might tolerate a dumb question from an earnest student. Employees tolerate the bad behavior of customers and employers. Kings, and those with great power and privilege, often wield their tolerance with a certain capriciousness, granting or removing their tolerance on whims and fancies. This kind of tolerance becomes very dangerous when applied by those in power towards those with none.

Just ask a medieval Jew.

Tolerance is weak, and does not guarantee freedom, life, liberty, justice or any of the other things we value in our society. All tolerance grants us is a momentary reprieve, saying, "I will not kill you today."

What protects us from capricious lapses of tolerance is a robust commitment to the rights of individuals and the primacy of conscience. this is why interfaith groups need to move beyond tolerance and commit to a real appreciation of the rights revolutions, and understand that such a commitment includes at its core valuing the complete separation of church and state.

Many religious points of view cannot permit such a commitment. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has adopted as theological policy an interpretation of separation of church and state that is decidedly one direction: the church is protected from the state, not the other way around. Under this framework the Roman Catholic Church feels justified in actively lobbying the government on issues of conscience such as reproductive and LGBTQ rights, actively seeking to impose their beliefs on others. In times past, when the church had temporal as well as putative moral power, it dealt quite harshly with those it disagreed with. Now, in a world and a society awash with respect for basic human rights, the church can only talk in terms of hating the sin but loving the sinner, of toleration, not acceptance.

As a secular person dabbling in interfaith work, I have to register some apprehension at the thought of reaching out to religious groups that are actively working to deny rights to women and LGBTQ persons. I would also think that members of liberal and progressive churches would be similarly reluctant to be strongly associated with conservative, orthodox and ethnic churches, because these are the churches that usually vocalize the kind of vitriol that tarnishes the public perception of all religion.

David Gushee, a Christian ethicist, writes on this in his piece, Christians v. Gays: The Damage Done. Writing in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA and the hyperbolic rhetoric coming from some of those on the Christian right, Gushee concludes that,
- Christianity has been identified with the cause of self-benefiting social discrimination against a minority group

-Christians… have become identified as the chief enemies of gay and lesbian human beings… and of the moral and legal rights of lesbians and gays

-Christians have become known for a deeply distorted moral agenda by elevating the anti-gay cause to the top of their public ethics, and this in a world afflicted by war, hunger, ecological disaster and all manner of social injustice.

-Christians have alienated gays and lesbians and their families, friends, and sympathetic allies, driving many away from the love of Jesus Christ and contributing to the secularization of American culture

-Christians have contributed to the fear in society that millions of Americans are unable to tell the difference between the church and the state, or between the demands of their faith on themselves vs. the demands of their faith on those who do not share it.


Gushee is a Christian, and disapproves of the secularization of our culture. He worries that Christianity is being forever tarnished by the outlandish reactions of some its more vocal adherents (though I might argue that Christianity has a long way to go before it has cleansed itself of its two thousand years of self tarnishing). This is a problem facing many religions, including Judaism and Islam, as the more extreme and even violent behavior of the very worst adherents is used as evidence that the entire religion is inherently violent, corrupt and intellectually bankrupt. Indeed, many secular persons, myself included, see such behavior as evidence that all religion is inherently corrupting on some level.

The fact is that reaching out to the more right-wing, conservative, anti-LGBTQ, anti-feminism, and ultimately anti-human churches does nothing to change the perception of religion. Instead of broadening the interfaith perspective such associations allow those with extremist religious views a sort of cloak of respectability. From the point of view of a secular, Humanist or atheist person interested in interfaith, providing moral cover for the kind of views that actively seek to diminish and harm certain people is anathema.

Associating with bigots is not toleration, it's being an accomplice to hate.

This is why a statement of values that makes a strong commitment to human rights and the true ideal of separation of church and state is so important. Such a statement of values protects the integrity of the membership from guilt by association and allows those truly interested in expanding weak and tepid tolerance into strong and unyielding acceptance for those who are different from us.

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