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J2K1%)4#L*K=7*Wilson Quarterly
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THE WILSON QUARTERLY

America's
Design
for

Tolerance

Religiousconflictsin multi-faithAmericaare mild comparedwith
nofaith at all.
thosein countriesthathaveonlyonefaith orxnrtwatty
BY CHRISTOPHER

CLAUSEN

IN 1790, BEFORE THERE WAS A FlRST AMEND- ! of violence since the colonial era. Even in times and

ment,GeorgeWashingtonsent a celebratedmessageto I
the Jewsof Newport,RhodeIsland:"Itis now no more I
that tolerationis spokenof as if it werethe indulgence I
of one classof peoplethat anotherenjoyedthe exercise I
of theirinherentnaturalrights,for,happily,the govern- I
ment of the United States,which gives to bigotryno |
sanction, to persecutionno assistance,requiresonly I
that they who live underits protectionshoulddemean I
themselvesas good citizensin givingit on all occasions |
their effectualsupport."As if to emphasizethat these |
viewsweremorethancoldEnlightenmentabstractions, I
he addednearthe end of his letter,"Maythe childrenof I
the stockof Abrahamwho dwellin thislandcontinueto I
meritandenjoythe goodwillof the otherinhabitants- |
whileeveryone shallsit in safetyunderhis ownvineand I
fig tree andthereshallbe none to makehim afraid." |
Thoughfrequentlystretchedand pummeledin the |
two centuriessincetheywereenunciated,Washington's |
principleshavegenerallydefinedenlightenedAmerican |
opinionon the relationof religiousbodiesto the state, |
as well as to one another.Americanshavefoughtovera I
greatmanyissues,but religionhas seldombeena source |
|
Christopher Clausen has writtenextensivelyon issues of religionand I
culture.His latest book is FadedMosaic: TheEmergenceof Post-Cultural
I
America(2000).

26

Wilson Quarterly

Winter 2007

placeswhereanti-Catholicismand anti-Semitismwere
common, the volume of actual blood and tears shed
over differencesof faith has been piddlingcompared
with the eflusionsin Europein the 17thcenturyor the
MiddleEasttoday.Perhapsthe greateststrugglebetween
tolerance and conformity to the majority's mores
occurredin the late 19thcenturywhenthe federalgovernmentforcedthe Mormonsto abandonpolygamy
Whilereligiouslymotivatedbloodshedremainsmercifullyrarein the UnitedStates,the idealsproclaimedby
Washingtonseem to be under severe pressure,if not
actuallybreakingdown.Theyalsolookmorenaivethan
they did 40 or 50 years ago. What Washingtonand
many later Americanschose to ignore, for perfectly
understandablecivic reasons,is the tendencyof fullstrengthreligion,with its sublimeand dangerouscertaintyin mattersof principle,to causediscordin a pluralisticsociety.Today,renewedstrugglesoverthe place
of religionin institutionsat everylevel,the celebration
of Christmasin public venues, God in the Pledge of
Allegiance,the legalityand proprietyof same-sexmarriage,courthousedisplaysof the TenCommandments,
and the statusof biologicalevolutionin educationspill
riversof inkandspawnendlesslitigation.The Leftfears
havesubvertedthe Constitutionto
thatfundamentalists

schoolsin 1869-70,evensupconflicthaslongbeena factof U.S.politicallife.WhenNewYorkCitybrieflysubsidizedparochial
Religious
ofCatholics
andotherreligious
ofnonsectarianism
to crudestereotypes
suchas thecartoonist
Thomas
Nastresorted
groups.
poseddefenders

establisha theocracy,whilethe Rightcomplainsof galloping secularism.EveryU.S. SupremeCourtconfirmationbecomesa battleoverthe quasi-religious
issueof
abortion.Warbetweenthefaiths,aswellasbetweenfaith
andgovernment,is ragingagainthroughoutmostof the
world,andAmericais partof the picture.
It seemsscarcelybelievablethatwhenJimmyCarter
ranforpresidentin 1976,manypeopleoutsidethe South
hadneverheardthe phrase"born-again
."Inthe
Christian
1980s and '90s,eminentsociologistsof religionincludingAlanWolfeand RobertBellah,followingthe leadof
Alexisde Tocquevillea centuryand a half earlier,still
individualism
,"
thoughtthata longtraditionof "religious
togetherwith the high valueAmericansplaceon being
nonjudgmental,couldbe countedon to preservecivic
harmony.Todaythatjudgmentseemsfartoo optimistic,

|
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I
j
|
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abstract term "religion/5as employed by
Washingtontwo centuries ago and accepted
more or less without examination by most
Westernerstoday, implies a basic similarity among
the phenomenait names. Fromthe relativelyuncon-

I

|
I
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j

|
I
i
i

troversialinsistencethat all religionsare equalbefore
the state to the stronger claim that all possess equal
intrinsic validityseems a short and naturalstep, one
that receivedfurtherencouragementfrom the rise of
comparative religious studies in the 19th century.
This claim of substantive equality may imply that
most or all faiths have an essential core of beliefs in
common,such as the powerand goodnessof God,and
that the religious conflicts of the past involved doctrines or practices of little importance.On the other
hand, the assumption that all religions are equally
true may simplybe a tactful way of sayingthat all are
equallyfalse. In eithercase,the idea gainedpopularity
because it seemed to carrythe democraticvirtue of
tolerance a long step furtherwhile sidesteppingtheological questions. "If the primary contribution of
religion to society is through the characterand conduct of citizens,"wrote Bellah approvinglyin Habits
of the Heart (1985), "any religion, large or small,
familiaror strange,can be of equalvalueto anyother."
Severalfactors,however,complicatethis generous
presumption of equality.One is that not everybody
shares the same notions of good characterand con-

Winter

2007

Wilson

Quarterly

27

Religious Tolerance

duct.Anotheris that actualreligions- Christianityin
its many forms, Judaism, Islam, to name no moreembody conflicting claims about the universe and
humanlife whose truth or falsityis not easyto ignore.
Serious religion is more than a diffuse collection of
attitudesand sentiments.Adherentswho standby the
historical claims of their own faith cannot without
contradictioneither accept the essential equality of
other religions or play by the rules of tolerance that
date from the Age of Reason. By the same token,
believersfind it hard to go along with secular or scientific claims that contradict what they regard as
revelation.This familiarstate of mind has often been
described as a revolt against modernity,whether it

\ faith, as a practicalnecessity.But deep down you can
| hardly avoid regarding them as damnable errors
! ratherthan the exercise of a naturalright.
In the Americancontext, saying so would violate
|
a
host
of long-established customs, with the result
|
who express negative opinions toward
that
those
|
| other religions are widely repudiated as extremists
| even by their fellow believers.Throughoutthe Mus| lim worldmanypeoplearemoreoutspoken,to saythe
j least. So are many Christiansin Africa, a numerous
| and growing body of the faithful who shook the
| worldwideAnglicanCommunionto its alreadycrack| ing foundations by demanding that the American
| Episcopal Church either repent for having consecrated an openly homosexual bishop in 2003 or
be expelled from the
Communion.(Of course,
in the view of traditional
Christians, it was the
Americans who did the

THE MORE CONFRONTATIONAL

branchesof Christianitythat still believe in
sin and hell havefar more membersthan

shaking.)
What is known in the
United States as "mainline" Protestantism on
the whole evades divisive
questionsaboutthe truth or falsityof traditionaldoctrines. The decline of the mainline churchesin numbers and prestige is a majorfactor in the controversies that beset church and state in America today.
"Throughoutthe 19thcenturyand well into the 20th,"
writes Bellah, "the mainline churches were close to
the center of American culture. The religious intellectuals who spoke for these churches often articulated issues in ways widely influential in the society
as a whole. But for a generationor more,the religious
intellectuals deriving from the mainline Protestant
churcheshavebecome moreisolatedfromthe general
culture."
Although the more confrontational branches of
Christianitythat still believe in sin and hell are often
dismissed by the media as a crankyfringe, they have
far more membersthan the formerlydominantmainline churches.Thereare morethan 67 million Roman
Catholics in the United States, overwhelminglythe
largest membershipof any religiousbody.(Catholics

the formerlydominantmainline churches.
occursin Alabamaor SaudiArabia;but if modernity
is equated with secularism, the statement is little
more than a tautology.
Thomas Jefferson'sepigram, "Butit does me no
injuryfor my neighbor to say there are twenty gods,
or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my
leg,"is often quoted as a model statement of democratictolerance.Yet it depends entirely on the questionable assumption that my neighbor's gods are
harmless introverts. Suppose instead that they
aggressivelycommand him to confine women in the
home, to marryseveralof them at once, to forbid me
from pursuing business and pleasure on the Sabbath, or to convert (if necessary by force) everyone
whose convictionsdiffer.What then? These possibilities are hardly fantasies. If you really believe as a
matterof divine revelationthat salvationcomes only
through the person of Christ or the teachings of
Muhammad, you may reluctantly accept the civic
equality of competing faiths, or of unbelief in any

28

Wilson Quarterly

Winter 2007

j
|
|
j
|
j
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j
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|
!
j
!

Religious Tolerance

are now informally accepted as mainstream by the i whelmingly backs the secular positions in the conpress and other cultural institutions, provided they I troversiesmentioned above. It could even be argued
rejectthe teachings of their churchon birth control, | that the priorityof the secular is implicit in George
abortion, homosexuality, papal infallibility, and | Washington'sideal of free religionsthat give the govwomen in the priesthood, as many American | ernment "on all occasions their effectual support."
Catholicsdo.) Among Protestants,the SouthernBap- | Religious freedom in a pluralistic society, according
tist Convention, regardedby many critics as a net- | to this tradition, means subordinatingthe demands
work of provincialfundamentalists,dwarfsall other | of religiousconscienceto secularlaws or valueswhendenominations,with morethan 16 million members. I ever the religious and the secular collide in the pubThere are more than five million Mormons;and the | lie square.Excepton rareoccasions,mainlineProtesMormonchurch,like the Southern Baptist Conven- | tant churches in the United States and western
tion, is still growing. Mainline sects, on the other I Europe embrace this understanding of priorities
hand, have been losing members for decades. The | almostby instinct,while sometimes (like their adverlargestMethodistdenominationhas just aboveeight | saries on the Right) claiming a religious basis for
million adherents. The once-powerful Episcopal I what are essentially secular political positions.
Secular values are open to change and interpreChurch now numbers fewer than two and a half |
of course, and at the moment their relationto
million.
tation,
|
most
numerous
the
I religiousones maywell be in transition.LargemajoriAmong non-Christians,
groupsare five and a quartermillion Jews and some- | ties of ordinary Americans consistently support
where between three and six million Muslims (the | prayerin public schools, the teaching of creationism
actual figure is a matter of bitter dispute). Since the | alongside evolution, and related positions that are
CensusBureaudoes not ask aboutreligion,and defin- I scorned as backwardprejudicesby the mainstream
ing membershipis often tricky,all statistics remain | press, Hollywood,most people who teach in univeropen to question. In the world as a whole there are | sities, and many Democrats.To put it mildly,there is
thought to be well over two billion Christians,a bil- | a considerable gap between elite and popular attilion and a third Muslims, and close to 900 million I tudes. In a phrase that became notorious, a WashHindus.
| ington Post reporter in 1993 contemptuously
On virtuallyevery point at issue between secular | described members of the Christian Coalition as
liberalism and Christian traditionalism- prayer in | "largelypoor, uneducated, and easy to command."
the schools,Darwinin the classroom,homosexuality, I The Post subsequentlyapologized,but similarjudgabortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, the equal | ments about evangelical Christians are more than
valueof all religiouspracticesprovidedthey offendno I commonplacein the news and entertainmentmedia.
social orthodoxy- mainline American religion
choosesthe secularside. Frequently,it makesa proud !
goes without saying that religious institutions
point of doing so. Lastyear a networkof progressive
Darwin's
also
evolve over time. Yet the liberal ProtesCharles
clergy proclaimed February 12,
occasion
for
services
tantism
that came to be defined as the American
"Evolution
an
Sunday,"
birthday,
celebratingthe scientific discoverythat probablydid | mainstream, with its emphasis on innocuousness
more than any other event in intellectual history to | and respectabilityover clarity,has a remarkablylong
undermineChristianbelief
| and stable history.In TheNon-Religionof theFuture
The fact that mainline religion views traditional | (1887), a classic in the sociology of religion, Jeanbeliefs with such distaste may be one reason for its !I MarieGuyaudeclaredthat "Protestantismis the only
dramatic decline in numbers and influence as the I religion, in the Occident at least, in which it is possihistoricallyProtestantelite fragmentedand lost much j| ble for one to become an atheist unawaresand withof its religiosityin the process.Today,elite American j| out having done oneself the shadow of a violence in
opinion, whether nominally religious or not, over- i the process."He went on:

Winter

2007

Wilson

Quarterly

29

Religious Tolerance

Accordingto the new Protestantsthereis no longerany
reasonfor takinganythingat its face value,not even
what has hitherto been considered as the spirit of
Christianity.Forthe most logicalof them, the Bibleis
scarcelymorethan a booklike another;one mayfind
Godin it if one seeksHim there,becauseone mayfind
Godanywhereandput Him there,if by chanceHe be
reallynot there already.. . . God no longertalksto us
by a singlevoice,but by all the voicesof the universe,
andit is in the midstof the greatconcertof naturethat

30

Wilson

Quarterly

Winter

2007

we must seize and distinguishthe veritableWord.All
is symbolicexceptGod,who is the eternaltruth.
Well, and why stop at God? . . . Why should not
God Himself be a symbol?What is this mysterious
Being, after all, but a popularpersonificationof the
divine or even of ideal humanity; in a word, of
morality?
It is hard to imagine that such a watered-down set of
beliefs might not be reconcilable with modern sci-

Religious Tolerance

intoWashington
in2008,
American
Fundamentalists:
Christ's
Entry
fearofintolerance
reflectsthewidespread
byJoelPelletier,
bythe
connewlypowerful
Religious
Rightanditsallies.Yettoday'spolitical
flictshavestoppedshortoftheapocalyptic
someexpected.
struggle

brutalprocessof evolutionbyrandom
less,indescribably
mutationandnaturalselection,one neednotbe a fundamentalistto feelskeptical.Pollsovermanyyearsindicate,
to the consternationof scientistsandmanypundits,that
onlya minorityofAmericansacceptevolutionasbiologists
ofthemajorunderstandit Hencethe surfaceplausibility
or
some
other
variantof
that
ityopinion intelligentdesign
creationismshouldbe availablein schoolsas an alternativeto naturalisticevolution.
Equaltimeforcompetingdoctrinesis suchan established principleof Americanlife that those who argue
againstit in this instanceare inevitablyat a rhetorical
disadvantage.The endlessly repeatedliberal mantra
never
that "science"is fully compatiblewith "religion"
of
Amerimost
of
the
90-plus percent
quitepersuades
cans who tell pollstersthey believe in a god because
thatmantraignorestoo manyof the convictionscentral
even to non-fundamentalistformsof religion.On this
atheistsandbiblicalliteralistsarein perpoint,ironically,
fect agreement.

ence, with feminism, with practicallyany dominant |
seculartrend.
|
Yettheillusionthatallconflictscanbe finessedbytak- I
ing the traditional claims of faith in a figurativeor !
sensecanitselfbecomea sourceof conflict. |
metaphorical
(Nobodyever arguesthat physicsor biologyshouldbe |
takenfiguratively)
Wheneliteopinioninsistspatronizingly|
thatthereis no realcontradiction
betweenthe conviction |
thata benevolent,omnipotentGodcreatedhumanityin 1
hisownimageandthe scientificpictureof a chancy,aim- I

their intellectual evasions, or maybe
becauseof them, Americanformsof religious
tolerancehave servedthe nationwell most of
the time, andstilldo. Evenamongthe mostdevout,few
of us wouldwishto see a statereligion,let alonethe scale
the United
of animositiesthatWashingtoncongratulated
the levelof mutual
Statesforavoiding.Not surprisingly,
irritationhas increasedalong with the power of the
state over education and once-privaterelations- the
public squarehas grown much largerthan it was in
Washington's
day- butbyanyhistoricalstandardwe still
these
manage
things impressively.What other large
is
countrytoday doing it as well? EveryAmericanis
legallyfree to insult everyotherAmerican'sbeliefs,yet
the conflictsareless destructivethan in most countries
wherethe law protectsbelieversfromoffensivespeech.
Of course, it helps that Americanreligionis so fragmented, and that the vast majorityof us (unlike,say,
WahhabiMuslimsof the presentor EuropeanCalvinists

Winter

2007

Wilson

Quarterly

31

Religious Tolerance

of four centuries ago) do not consider faith our strongest | itancy and tolerance, individual autonomy and the social
! order, peace and the sword. How far other forces of
allegiance.
history- science, political change, the failure of militant
I Islam to achieve its goals, or (as eventually happened in
complicated attitudes of believing Americans | Europe)sheerexhaustion- may eventuallyworkto sheath
toward other religions and the state add up to a
the swordof faithis a crucialquestionforthis young century.
So far, the search by outsiders for a critical mass of
series of paradoxesthat often annoy their secular
Muslims in the image of mainline Christians,
and
bewilder
The
United
States
"moderate"
compatriots
foreigners.
in
has
who
is
more
either
the
Islamicworlditselfor in secularEurope,has led
currently apresident
overtlyreligiousthan |
most ofhis recentpredecessors,and his faithunmistakably
onlyto repeateddisappointments.Afteran obsessivelyanaaffectshis view of some public issues.At the same time, he
lyzed successionof terroristevents,threats,riots,and murders, European countries find themselves at a complete
goes out ofhis way to express an impeccable tolerance
toward other religions- especially the acid test of Islam
loss abouthowto integratealaige, growing,and frequently
alienated Muslim population. Affluence and technologicaladvance,it seems,will
not automatically bring
about a decline in religious
commitment. They may
actually be stimulating its
most fanaticalforms.Meanwhile,publicopinionin such
countries as Denmark and
the Netherlands becomes
increasinglyfrustrated.Negsince 9/11- and even toward unbelievers.This mixture of | ativepopularattitudestoward Islamare often dismissed as
aggressivereligiositywith deferencetowardthe opinionsof | racism, but confronting militant beliefs is quite different
othersstrikesmuch oftheworld as incomprehensible.Per- | from expressingracialprejudice.Insteadof the futureof the
| planet, post-Christianwestern Europe may represent an
hapsftisinerelyAmerican.President
expressedit in its most endearinglynebulous form: "Our | exception as extreme in its own way as theocratic Iran or
governmentmakesnosenseunlessitisfoundedonadeeply | SaudiArabia.As a BritishMuslim told a columnist for The
held religiousbelief- and I don't carewhat it is"
| Guardian in the wake of the July 7, 2005, London terrorWhile this sublime formula helps explain some of the | ist bombings,the feet that you no longerbelievein yourrelideepest paradoxesof American life, it seems not to export | gion is no reason we shouldn'tbelieve in ours.
well.Much oftheworld operateson quite differentassump- |
One reason Muslim immigrants may have an easier
tions. Seriousreligionhas its own agendas,on which inclu- | time integrating into American society is that piety of
sivenessand socialharmony sometimes rankfar down the | almost any sort is so much more common and accepted
listObeyingtoeLonfeœmn^
| here than in Europe. The complete secularization many
thosecommandsinvolvepubliccontroversies,the effectscan | intellectuals have been yearning for since the Enlightenbe spectacularlydismptiveeven in an open sotiety,w^
I ment, now nearly achieved in Europe, turns out to bring
the crusade is to end segregation or outlaw abortion. A | its own set of unexpected problems. Although George
powerful and incomparablydestructiveform of contem- | Washington would no doubt be disappointed, an AmerporaiyreligionstiHmandatesreUgiora
| ican future of emotional, never-quite-settled conflicts
criminatekillingof Jews,Crusaders,apostates,and oftenthe | overthe place of faith in publiclife looks like an acceptable
worshiperhimself, as a matter of conscience. Like other | price to pay for avoiding the far greater evils that afflict
I both the devout and godless regions of the earth, m
m^orMhs,Islamhasœnti^ctoiyteachmgsaboutmil-

THE COMPLICATEDattitudesof

believingAmericanstowardother religions
and the state often annoytheir secular
compatriotsand bewilderforeigners.

32

Wilson Quarterly

Winter

2007


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