Jews, Muslims, and Christians Restoring American Ideals

Jews, Muslims, and Christians Restoring American Ideals August 16, 2017

Unity and political solidarity and action are the only way to overturn the ascending forces of bigotry and hate in US society.

  1. I just came back from a month in Southeast Asia; visiting Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Some of you will know that I lived in that region for more than 12 years.
  2. Each of these countries has a distinctive social makeup, government, and understanding of religious diversity. What they common is an understanding that one cannot simply let the forces of bigotry, ethnocentrism, and ignorance run rampant on the belief that things will just naturally improve over time. So each country, in its own way, has engaged its most significant institutions in fostering a culture of tolerance and respect among different religions.
  3. What we face in the US today, and have faced for many decades at least, is the foolish notion that in an culturally complex and religiously diverse society social relations will somehow naturally improve, and equality and respect among people of different races and religions will naturally prevail. This is not the case, certainly not in the short term. And the evidence for this is all around us right now. Bigotry and ignorance can win, and can lodge themselves in the presidency, the legislatures, and the governors mansion.
  4. When I can moved back to the United States 12 years ago I immediately began to look for opportunities for inter-religious dialogue. I found almost none. Even the rather long-standing Jewish-Christian dialogue that had once been so important appeared to have died on the vine. My school, Perkins School of Theology, had no formal relationships with either the Jewish or Muslim communities and only weak personal links to the Buddhist and Hindu communities.
  5. Moreover, my colleagues in the United Methodist church warned me that inter-religious relations were a dead end. They were, and I quote, “a minor concern of a small minority of Christians.” And that was three years after 9/11.
  6. That has begun to change, and I could now name half a dozen ongoing efforts to foster dialogue, not even including those initiated by various mosques in the DFW area to foster better community understanding.
  7. At the same time my message this evening is not that we need more dialogue. Because what we face is not merely a lack of knowledge of one another’s religious traditions. What we are facing today is an assault on the character of the United States as a secular state in which all religions and races have a right to live, and live together, with full human and political rights.
  8. This assault is taking three forms. The first is an unconscious desire among religious people for the days when religious beliefs and values were embedded in and supported by public institutions, and thus their religious identity was protected. Such nostalgic desires play into the hands of divisive identity politics as the protection of any particular religious identity inevitably suppresses all other religious identities. This is the reason our founding fathers insisted on the separation of church and state. What we need today is a renewal within our religious communities of the kind of discussion on political theology found in the 2016 Marrakech declaration – a groundbreaking step forward for Muslims. But we shouldn’t imagine this is just a matter for Muslims. Both Christians and Jews are currently under the sway of naive political theologies whose results in the public sphere are a disaster.
  9. But mere desire to have one’s religious identity affirmed by public institutions is the least of the threats we face today. There is a much more active assault on American values in the form of public protest and violence against religious groups, Muslims in particular. Added to this is the constant threat of surveillance against the background of discriminatory law enforcement practices. Again, the most obvious target is the Muslim community, which according to Reuters reports will soon be the only community that the Federal government will investigate in relation to domestic terrorism. And of course there are the outright attacks on Muslims and Muslim properties which no occur daily, and are mirrored in somewhat lesser but equally frightening attacks on Jews and Jewish institution.
  10. The weapons being used by anti-American forces against the Muslim community; white supremacist movements (The KKK and etc.), conservative Christianist movements (Focus on the Family, Franklin Graham, The 700 Club), and Christian dominionists (Ted Cruz, The Family, and others), are equally inimical to other racial and religious minorities. It is hardly surprising the Jewish, African American, and Sikh communities have also suffered attacks.
  11. The purpose of these attacks is clear: marginalization. They are intended to drive people out of the public square, to socially and politically disempower them. It is an effort – one strongly supported by existing legislators, governors, and the US president to make the public space hostile to everyone except conservative white Christians.
  12. The second form of assault is legal; an effort to prevent religious communities from living as communities guided by their own ethical principles. The legislative tools are pointed at Muslims and take two forms. One is the effort to outlaw tribunals and other bodies that would guide Muslims in forming and maintaining Shari’a compliant partnerships. But the effect of these badly drawn and utterly ignorant laws falls on Roman Catholic canon law advisory boards and Jewish megan as well. The second is to use zoning and immanent domain legislation to deny Muslims the right to build religious institutions. Right now our federal court systems have rightly struck down such efforts as unconstitutional. However, our court system is being systematically politicized to favor a novel reading of the US constitution as supporting a Christian nation. In our current political situation there is no guarantee that constitutional freedoms will long be supported by the courts.
  13. Because these attacks are being encouraged, instigated, and initiated by many of our current political leaders mere dialogue between religions is not sufficient. And in any case the politicians leading the bigotry have shown no interest in dialogue.
  14. As a result we must become allies in offering a robust public and political resistance to the legalization and public acceptance of bigotry and hate.
  15. And, and on this note I close: this requires three things that have yet to fully develop.
    1. First a re-focusing within our respective communities on internal dialogue and cooperation. My own United Methodist church is deeply and obsessively divided over issues of human sexuality, making it difficult for us to reach out beyond our community to work with others. Moreover such internal divisions insure that we need not be taken seriously by politicians. They know that we can present no united front on any significant political issue, rendering our public statements worthless. I expect that both the Jewish and Muslim communities can identify similar problems internally that make external forms of cooperation difficult to achieve.
    2. Secondly we need to begin to engage together in the most basic politics, that of finding and supporting candidates in the state and national primaries. Our communities together must identify the basic values and policies that we insist be part of a any candidate’s platform, so that our people will vote for candidates who will protect that character of American democracy. It is the indifference and disunity of our religious communities at the level of primary election politics that have allowed a hateful, ignorant, and bigoted minority to control the legislative process. But the good news is that as long as primaries, in which only small numbers of voters participate, are the most important venues of political choice then small groups of motivated voters can make a large positive difference. If religious people of good will unite in getting their voters to the primary elections they can take back control of our legislatures.
    3. Finally, we need to foster and further develop multi-faith alliances as they play a public role showing solidarity on issues of mutual concern. While we cannot agree on everything, we can agree on many things and in these matters we need to be seen standing together as a symbol of the kind of diverse, complex, and rich society that the United States is and should be. None of us is politically significant on our own. But united we will be taken seriously.

Browse Our Archives