The Common Good

Melding Faith and Tolerance

Date: July 2, 2006
A half-century dominated by the secular ideologies of capitalism, communism and physics has given way to a time of religious backlash provoked by the uncertainties and menaces of vertiginous modernization. While shrinking the world, the forces of technology, trade and communications have done little to make it a more tolerant place.

Intolerance -- whether exercised by "Islamic" fundamentalists blowing up the mosques of other sects or by "Christian" activists blowing up abortion clinics -- is rapidly becoming a decisive force in domestic politics and foreign policy in nation after nation.

This growing crisis of intolerance needs to be recognized and addressed by the world's political leaders, not exploited or ignored by them. Interfaith dialogues, the conscious stripping away of injurious religious stereotypes and a refusal to base state policy on narrow religious interests should become part of an international political agenda adopted and promoted by global organizations wherever they exist.

The civil war within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites and the violent jihadist ideologies against other religions it has spawned are the most immediately malignant forms of the wave of global backlash. But they are part of a broader phenomenon.

The spiraling growth of evangelical Christianity in the United States -- as well as in Latin America, China and Africa -- reflects the central reality that also helps drive the radicalization of Islam across the Middle East, Central Asia and the northern Caucasus. When people feel threatened by rapid and mystifying change, they turn to the most literal forms of religion for explanations and justifications.

It was not supposed to work this way, says Karsten Voigt, a political intellectual whose main job is studying the United States for the German government. It was assumed that "there was an indissoluble link between modernization and secularization. But that turns out to have been wrong," Voigt told a gathering of Europeans and Americans sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy here last week.

Voigt argued that religion is becoming an important factor in a widening gap between Europe and the United States.

Many Europeans assume that all American "evangelicals are poor and badly educated" and have made the Bush administration their instrument for proving to the world "that God is American," Voigt said. Meanwhile, he noted, Americans see falling church membership in Europe as proof of the moral and physical decline of a feckless Old Continent not interested in spiritual values, even though church attendance seems to be increasing again in Europe.

"On both sides of the Atlantic, broad sections of the population are unable and unwilling to get inside the heads of their transatlantic counterparts," he added. "When people fail to communicate with one another, their relationship suffers."

Broadly speaking, Europeans construct laws and constitutions to protect the state from the power of religion. Americans protect religion from the power of the state. For them, politics is "a civic religion" in which "good and evil are clear alternatives" that form simple choices.

"Americans have never had a problem combining religion and democracy in their own society. That may have caused them to underestimate the difficulties that Islamic countries would have in reconciling the two. Europeans feel it is a difficult process that could take decades, not years," Voigt told me.

A few days later in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addressed with an unusual combination of clarity and civility the problems for democracy that religious backlash is creating at home. His words could easily be adopted as well as guidelines for all governments in the Middle East and elsewhere.

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason," Obama said Wednesday in a talk to the Call to Renewal group. Principles must be "accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

"Now, this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy" of sacred scripture. "But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. . . . At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policymaking on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."