Religious Tolerance in America

By Bradley Wabbersen
(from Veneratio Spring 2014)

This essay is from Dr. James Warren’s Honors English 1302 course

Imagine with me, if you will, a nation in its infancy, unlike any the world has seen before. The government is the product of an age of reason: a hybrid democratic republic that values the individual. This nation is composed of people from many different countries and cultures who brought with them their own religions and belief systems. All these groups of people coexist under the same new nation. This nation has no state religion and guarantees to every individual the right to practice whatever religion they choose. This is necessary, you see, to avoid the violence and oppression that have almost always followed religious differences throughout history. It is not enough, however, to require by law that the government stay out of religious affairs. There must be a common cultural understanding, a set of unwritten rules to govern the interactions of private citizens, to oppose oppression in all its forms.

The country I describe is the United States of America at its founding. The system of unwritten rules I described form what we might call religious tolerance, the tenets of which are anything but settled even after all these years. The problem of ambiguity has only become more apparent in fact. In one of his latest books, The Intolerance of Tolerance, well-known theologian D. A. Carson reports on the dire state of the controversy. “It does not take much cultural awareness to see that the difficulties surrounding this subject are eating away at… the fabric of Western culture.” Advances in communication and increasing urbanization across the globe make the world in which we live seem smaller every day. People of different beliefs interact more frequently now than ever before. In the coming years, religious tolerance will be crucial in maintaining stability. Getting it right will be just as important. This is predominately a cultural issue, meaning that your opinion matters, my dear readers. How you interact with people matters. How you expect people to interact with you matters. Like voting in an election, you cannot simply leave it to someone else to make an informed decision. In this paper, I will analyze a few of the major viewpoints on religious tolerance, emphasizing what I believe to be their strengths and weaknesses, and support a position of my own.

I believe that many commonly held beliefs about religious tolerance are either counterproductive or at least incomplete. At the very least, we as a culture need to re-examine our ideas about religious tolerance. By the end, I hope to prove that religious tolerance is best achieved by exploring the differences between us through education and exchange. Even if you disagree with my conclusions, I hope that this paper will stimulate serious thinking on the subject. The positions I will describe were derived from several academic sources. These positions have come to be known by some as Secularism, Pluralism, and Post-Secularism.

To explain the first position, I will return to the early days of America. The rise of secularist philosophy in America has often been attributed to the rise of Jeffersonian Democracy, a system of ideas about good government and society held by President Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues. Jason Springs, a professor with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, recently published an article in the Journal of Religion that overviews the progression of the religious tolerance debate in America. He explains that Secularism in the United States is rooted in the “Jeffersonian Compromise.” The compromise goes something like this: citizens are permitted to practice any form of religion they want or no religion at all so long as the practice of their religion does not infringe upon the natural rights of others.

The idea of natural rights, and indeed much of Jefferson’s philosophy, was born out of the Enlightenment. The rights to life, liberty, and property are a few examples. The only other stipulation was that religion be kept out of public discourse. The reason for this is simple: if religion is not discussed in public, conflict will be minimized. It seems to me that Jefferson meant to keep religion out of politics only; however, some have argued that religion be kept out of all public life. The important thing to remember is that apart from the right to religious freedom we now enjoy, this compromise is not written in law. It is merely a model for how society should function. We know that the government will in the vast majority of cases intervene if a citizen violates the law, regardless of religious motivations. However, there is no obligation under law for religious citizens to keep their religion to themselves. The only force that enforces this part of the compromise is social pressure.

Secularism, in some form or another, still has many supporters today. Sensing a decline in the popularity of Secularism, Dutch philosopher and writer Paul Cliteur defended secular thinking in his new book, The Secular Outlook. He advocates, like many of his predecessors, a non-religious public sphere. He even proposes that society should adopt a skeptical attitude toward religion. While not all secularists agree on every aspect of the philosophy, at its core Secularism always advocates for less public religious expression. Religion is simply too messy to be included in public life. Different religions are irreconcilable and disagreement can in some cases lead to violence. Thus only secular reason and objectivity can be trusted in the public sector.

While Secularism has some strong arguments, I still find it to be lacking. I agree that freedom of expression must be limited at some point. To use the classic example, a person should not be allowed to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre if there is in fact no fire. That would create chaos and society would be unable to function. The same rationale applies to religion. Finding an appropriate place to draw the line is difficult. How far should society go to accommodate religious beliefs? Much ink has been spilled over this issue. In this paper, however, I aim only to address what we as a social force should require of each other. It may be easier simply to keep religious discussion out of public life, but it is not altogether productive to do so.

Restricting the exchange of religious information may result in misconceptions about certain religious groups. Worse, it may allow bitterness between religious groups to fester and eventually lead to violence. One need only look back to the attack on September 11 for evidence of this. Remember how suddenly the bitterness that Islamic fundamentalism felt toward the U.S. was brought to the forefront. Think about how little the vast majority of Americans really knew about this group of Muslims. No one can say whether terrorist attacks like 9/11 could have been prevented through increased cultural awareness, but that is not my point. The fact of the matter is most of the American people never saw them coming. Perhaps real discourse with disparate factions in third-world countries is impractical; but with the new threat of home-grown religious terrorists on the rise, society must actively work to stop the cycle of bitterness. Apathy or, worse, irritation toward other religions is counterproductive to society and can only be resolved through discourse.

Another problem with limiting religious discussion is that certain religious groups emphasize sharing their beliefs in public as part of their religion. Some groups might consider this kind of limitation persecution. For every limitation society places upon religion, there is a cost to freedom. In addition, history has shown that trying to silence religious groups is an entirely futile endeavor. Because limiting religious expression allows bitterness and misconceptions to thrive and may be perceived as persecution, I believe we should not view religious tolerance as a call to keep religion private.

Apparently, others agreed that Secularism was lacking, because other major viewpoints soon emerged. The next major philosophy I will discuss is known as Pluralism. Out of all the viewpoints, Pluralism is perhaps the most diversely defined. I will follow the lead of Springs in defining Pluralism as a “marketplace of ideas.” Any religious idea can be exchanged at the marketplace so long as the idea does not threaten the marketplace itself. This has been described as an evolution of Secularism. Pluralists argued that Secularism cannot be truly neutral because it relies on the idea of natural law and makes reason the supreme virtue. Pluralists claim that if society cannot be truly neutral, then it should make tolerance the supreme virtue. In other words, Pluralists have no problem with religion in public; in fact they welcome it. The only caveat is that any religious ideas that are intolerant are unwelcome. The purpose of the marketplace is to produce shared values that everyone in society can relate to. Thomas Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University in the Department of Psychology, published an article in Pastoral Psychology in which he argued that society should focus on the positive attributes of religion rather than the negative attributes. In particular, he makes the point that all religions are like a mountain; the ideas converge at the top. Ideas like “sacredness of life and of the world, ethical behavior towards others, prayer and meditation, community and service involvement, and both love and respect for all” should be valued by society. This is a good example of Pluralist thinking. The end goal of Pluralism, at least the Pluralism I am describing, is to reconcile religious differences for the betterment of society– a noble goal. I appreciate the move toward more religious expression. However, I still take issue with many aspects of this philosophy.

Pluralism makes an assumption that is central to its belief system; namely, that different religions are reconcilable. While many religions share some of the same ideas, there are key differences that should not be ignored. The bottom of the mountain matters too. For example, many religions such as Islam believe that entry into heaven is gained through a life of good works, in contrast to the idea held by many Christians that salvation is through faith apart from works. Clearly, there is no compromise that would not alter the essence of each belief. Another problem with the Pluralistic compromise is the perceived requirement to give approval to beliefs and actions that contradict one’s own religion. It is clearly not reasonable to require someone to be completely comfortable with lifestyles that are contrary to their religion. Tolerance doesn’t have to mean approval. I agree that there is value in recognizing similar beliefs. The ideas of natural law, for example, originated from commonly held religious ideas. Natural law has been invaluable in forming our society. However, as a social force, we cannot focus only on the similarities between us. Otherwise we will misunderstand the religions we attempt reconcile with. Interestingly, this philosophy can become a religion in and of itself. Groups such as the Universalists have merged what they consider to be the best parts of the world’s religions into one religion. However, this is clearly not the same religion as the religions that formed it.

We also risk offending those who hold to beliefs that are in opposition to the consensus. Fundamentalist groups are perhaps the most ill-tolerated in Pluralist society. By fundamentalist, I simply mean any religious group that takes its holy text literally as a source of truth. It seems harmless enough until you consider that these groups are essentially saying that they have the only source of truth. This does not mix well with Pluralism because the claim that there is only one truth is intolerant of others who claim to have a source of truth. In these cases, Pluralism has in fact become quite intolerant in its effort to be tolerant. This is one of the main arguments that D. A. Carson makes in The Intolerance of Tolerance. Alienating fundamentalist groups to the idea of tolerance is not beneficial to society, especially when there are better, more inclusive ways to achieve tolerance. This along with the idea that different religions cannot always be completely reconciled has convinced me that tolerance should not be a call to compromise.

The final viewpoint I will be looking at has come to be called Post-Secularism by its supporters. As the name suggests, it is a fairly new movement. However,it is quickly gaining support among community leaders and educators. While its central ideas may not be exceptionally nuanced, it is only now gaining any real traction, likely as a reaction to the shortcomings of the previous two philosophies. They believe that any kind of restraint to religious expression, beyond the obvious restraints of law, is counterproductive to society. Their solution is quite simple: education. In a recently published article in The Social Studies Journal, Jeff Passe and Lara Willox made a case for teaching religion in public schools, citing a strong post-secular movement. As educators themselves, they argued that a trend of increasing religion in the public sector called for a balanced religious education to prepare youth for a post-secular world. As religion is once again coming to the forefront of society, the secular era is coming to an end. More diverse religious groups are interacting now than ever before. Post-secular thinkers believe that society needs to be prepared for a religious public life. Post-seculars do not necessarily believe that the world’s religions are compatible; but they needn’t be. Society should stop relying on political and legal pressure to conform people into tolerant citizens. People should be free to express their religious ideas in public and society should help them do it. They see public discourse not as a debate, but as a free exchange of ideas. They find value in the differences that the other views would rather ignore. Even fundamentalists can be an accepted part of social discourse. Some might think that fundamentalists would object to an open exchange of ideas and perhaps some would object. For those who are completely convinced that their way is the only way, discussions about different beliefs might seem pointless. However, they should recognize that there are benefits for all parties under this system. Unlike Pluralism, there is no pressure to grant approval to other lifestyles. The only pressure is to open dialog. Such an exchange would provide a medium for the religiously-minded to proselytize without fear of persecution. This is all well and good, but what does this mean practically?

In my research, I ran across a few examples of how post-seculars operate. One example is the National Conference of Christians and Jews that worked to address religious intolerance primarily in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This group used religious education to achieve tolerance in the US and actively opposed the use of political, legislative, or legal action. They were famous for their “intercollegiate parlays.” They were most successful when their primary focus was religious education of local communities, as they were winning numerous awards for their work. Another group, The Interreligious Coordinating Council, operates today in Israel, an especially difficult area for this sort of work. They too focus their efforts on educating local communities about other religions. They run many programs that bring students and religious leaders of different faiths together to share their beliefs. They also offer intensive mutual study programs on religions in the community. Despite their relative youth as an organization, they already report a large impact on their community.

If you haven’t figured it out already, there is a lot about post-secular philosophy that appeals to me. It doesn’t require that religion be kept private. It doesn’t require conformity to a commonly held set of standards. So far, the ideas seem to work. The question is can we as a society handle truly open discussion of religion, or will we fall back into our violent predispositions? I am convinced that we should explore the differences between us through education and exchange. I believe this process will clear up misconceptions we have about other religions and allow for genuine respect to develop.

Okay, but what can the average citizen do? I’m glad you asked. To conclude, it is everyone’s responsibility to practice religious tolerance in their day-to-day lives. We should neither compel nor feel compelled to remain silent about religion. We should neither compel not feel compelled to compromise. We should welcome and perhaps even instigate honest discussions about religion. When we truly understand each other, perhaps we will find that we can tolerate one another.

Bradley Wabbersen is an Honors College Electrical Engineering student from Mansfield, Texas. He is one of our Honors Distinction Scholarship awardees. The HDS is the most prestigious scholarship that UTA offers.