Totalitarians vs. pluralists

Faithfully Liberal posted an interview with Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. I hadn't heard of either Patel or his group before, so the interview provided a good introduction.

I particularly liked this distinction, from Patel. The "faith line," he says:

… does not separate Muslims from Christians, or Jews from Hindus, but rather religious totalitarians from pluralists. A religious totalitarian is someone who seeks to suffocate those who are different from them. … A pluralist is someone who seeks to live with people who are different, be enriched by them, and peacefully coexist in the world together.

This talk of living with, of peacefully coexisting, and particularly of being "enriched by" people of other faiths and perspectives would not sit well with many of the fundamentalists in the church and school I attended as a child. Their response to such talk would be to recite a passage otherwise usually reserved for explaining why we shouldn't date infidels (I'll quote from the King James Version, because it's their favorite):

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?

That's from 2 Corinthians 6, a passage that concludes with the motto of the Amish: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate."

The Amish take this a bit more extravagantly than most Christians do, but they also take this passage too seriously not to notice that it speaks of "coming out" and "being separate" — not of conquest, domination and enforced hegemony. Paul does not say, "Wherefore, take ye back America."

The "separateness" Paul speaks of is to be characterized, he says in the same chapter, by "giving no offense in any thing," by "kindness" and by "love unfeigned." All of which sounds a great deal like Eboo Patel's desire for "peacefully coexisting." The very same characteristics Paul describes as separating "light from darkness" also characterize what separates religious pluralists from religious totalitarians.

Patel's description also applies, usually, to the sometimes boisterous pluralism I often see displayed here in the comment threads on theism/atheism and the like. Whatever our religious persuasion — including, of course, the belief that religion is far from persuasive — we can still manage to, as Patel says, "live with people who are different, be enriched by them, and peacefully coexist in the world together." We can do so, as Paul says, without giving offense, with kindness and unfeigned love. We can do so without having to pretend that we're all in the right, or that we do not disagree.*

It is possible to be a fervent (non)believer without desiring to "suffocate" those who disagree. Consider, for example, the group of rather conservative evangelicals that Michael Luo and Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times refers to as a "New Breed of Evangelicals." These are the same folks that Media Matters characterized as "less ideological religious leaders" in their recent study of "The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media." They didn't fit easily into the study's tally of media appearances of politically conservative and politically liberal religious leaders.

Here again Patel's distinction is useful. The conservative religious leaders tracked by Media Matters (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Bill Donohue, Tony Perkins, etc.) are nearly all people who advocate what Patel would call religious totalitarianism. The progressive religious leaders tracked in the study (Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner, David Saperstein, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.) are people who advocate pluralism. The so-called "new breed" types — folks like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes — tend to be very conservative, yet they do not advocate the religious totalitarianism that characterizes the rest of the religious right.

– – – – – – – – –

* About here, inevitably, someone will chime in with what they seem to think of as the trump card for the religious totalitarian perspective. Aha! they will say, so what you're saying is you're all for tolerance, except when it comes to people who are intolerant!

Well, yeah. And also, duh. Antonyms are incompatible. Opposites are opposed. That's not a particularly noteworthy observation, so I've always been baffled as to why this bit of adolescent wordplay was regarded as meaningful.

Here again, though, I think Patel's terminology is helpful. Intolerance is, necessarily, totalitarian. So when I say I favor freedom — whether freedom of conscience or of any other sort — then, yes, what I'm really saying is that I'm all for freedom except for when it comes to people who want to impose totalitarianism. This exception does not, as the JV sophists would have it, negate the claim that "I'm all for freedom." It simply demonstrates that, unlike them, I'm aware of what words like "free" and "tolerant" — and their opposites — actually mean.

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  • 85% Duane

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