The challenge of religious pluralism in America

Legal scholar, Stanley Fish, writes:

The conflict between religious imperatives and the legal obligations one has as a citizen of a secular state — a state that does not take into account the religious affiliations of its citizens when crafting laws — is an old one…; but in recent years it has been felt with increased force as Muslim immigrants to Western secular states evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shariah law rather than by the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism. I say “supposedly” because of the obvious contradiction: how can a law that refuses, on principle, to recognize religious claims be said to be neutral with respect to those claims? Must a devout Muslim (or orthodox Jew or fundamentalist Christian) choose between his or her faith and the letter of the law of the land?

The context in which Muslims in America find their religion under assault is riddled with contradictions. Islamophobia — as The Tennessean reports — has become a profitable business in which fearmongers who profess no expertise on the subject are couching the “threat” from Islam in similar terms to the Red Menace of the 1950s.

“Islam,” says Pastor Darrel Whaley from Kingdom Ministries Worship Center in Rutherford County, Tennessee, “is political; it is ideas and philosophies; it’s not a religion at all… They want to take over America and the whole world.”

(The image in this video freezes after one minute but the audio continues uninterrupted.)

At the same time that Islam is being presented as an ideological threat to America, among those receptive to this message, another message resonates with equal strength: that Americans of faith are threatened by secularists who insist on imposing a separation of church and state.

When Colorado Republican Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck declared: “I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state,” he drew a strong round of applause. Secularism and Sharia are seen by many as a dual threat to the American way of life.

One might imagine that — at least in theory — it would be possible for the embattled faithful, both Muslim and Christian, to find some common ground — at least one would if it were not for the fact that Christianity in America is in so many ways a secularized religion. That’s why the idea of religion shaping the whole life of the faithful is presented as foreign.

Religion in America has less to do with the devotional and ethical practices that circumscribe religious life, than with the experience of belonging to communities of affiliation within which a religious national identity finds expression. It’s about banding together around particular definitions of what it means to be American and taking on battles against those who pose a threat to these definitions.

For that reason, the fight against abortion is a much more popular cause than the fight against adultery. As with most crusades the preferred battleground is not home turf. Religious solidarity comes less through shared practice, than shared animosity.

But before the secularists here (and I include myself) start feeling too smug, Fish makes an important point:

[T]he respect liberalism can accord Islam (or any other strong religion) is the respect one extends to curiosities, eccentrics, the backward, the unenlightened and the unfortunately deluded. Liberal respect stops short — and this is not a failing of liberalism, but its very essence — of taking religious claims seriously, of considering them as possible alternative ways of ordering not only private but public life.

On that basis, it’s easy to adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy — well encapsulated in the COEXIST bumper sticker — in which tolerance is a kind of benign indifference. But coexistence in healthily functioning pluralistic societies must really go much further.

In an interesting talk, Muneer Fareed points out that the challenges America now faces have been addressed before and indeed that Islam in its formation saw its own existence in a pluralistic context.

[The Quran says] If God had so wanted, then all of humanity would be following one way. This is clear unmistakable evidence from the text itself, that Islam is a religion that doctrinally endorses, encourages and accomodates religious pluralism.

The faithful and fearful across America will remain unmoved, convinced paradoxically that this is an argument they cannot win even while truth remains on their side. According to the evangelicals, God does want all of humanity following one way and has chosen men like Pastor Darrel Whaley and Pastor Terry Jones to shepherd us in the right direction.

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8 thoughts on “The challenge of religious pluralism in America

  1. Renfro

    Even though I cannot understand how anyone of even average intelligence could possibly take the Bible literally I don’t begrudge them their religion or what ever they choose to believe.
    UNLESS…they try to insert their religion into government and impose it on others.
    It’s the mentally sub par religious fanatics that are dangerous.

  2. John Somebody

    Just suppose, there’s a “God”, who wants us all to share one direction, which involves everybody having respect for everybody else’s autonomy. That would mean respect for personal responsibility, self discipline, free will. This would therefore involve everyone siding with anyone, who’s a potential victim, of any influence which would impose anything, on anyone else, thereby depriving them of autonomy. That would include any imitation “God” any fascistic figment of imagination.
    Don’t tell me about how that could only work, if everybody were to be reasonable.
    There’s only one alternative to a lack of genuine progress, and that’s progress
    And isn’t religion commonly supposed to help us to strive for perfection ? Well, who do you know of, that gets up in the morning, and decides to burn the toast, ‘cos the world’s not perfect. Do humans strive to make things as good as they can, bearing in mind, that to take too long about doing anything, provides an imperfect result, and immature, selfish people have to evolve, just like everything else. The alternative to such evolution/ maturing, would be stagnation, which is unnatural and counterproductive. When we delegate responsibility, we cease to learn our lessons. That’s when we use the Nuremburg excuse, “Only following orders”, and no progress is made.
    So, if there’s a “God” who wants us to accept personal responsibility, then He/ She/ It, wants us to be Anarchists. The alternative, after all, would be to delegate responsibility, to someone else. So, to vote, is to be truly unnatural. It’s to be of the world, not just in the world. And it’s the system by which we can expect to stumble from conflict, to conflict, forever more. Or untill we discover the alternative to a lack of progress

  3. Christopher Hoare

    Perhaps there is a reason “Liberal respect stops short — and this is not a failing of liberalism, but its very essence — of taking religious claims seriously, of considering them as possible alternative ways of ordering not only private but public life.” The motivation of accepting any doctrine that transfers the responsibility for one’s own actions and future onto any mythical deity is an action only suitably judged by psychological, not moral precepts.
    The US is the most religious of western nations only because of the fake doctrines of libertarianism and unrestrained capitalism that have plunged its people into a social jungle they cannot feel safe in. The appeal to deity is a cry from the helpless.
    Those who use religious stories as excuses for moral and social excesses should have the oversight of the secular world to reign them in. The biggest problems in human life are not solved by theism, they are compounded by it.

  4. dickerson3870

    RE: Pastor Darrel Whaley from Kingdom Ministries Worship Center in Rutherford County, Tennessee
    MY COMMENT: G_d help us. I beseech you, Dear L_rd. Pastor Darrel scares the living hell out of me!
    P.S. I assume his pin is of crossed US and Israeli flags.

  5. David Marchesi

    The change in the motto on the dollar back in the 50’s says it all – e pluribus unum to “In God We Trust”. The Golden rule- whoever has the gold makes the rules- is ideal for plutocracies such as the US, Saudi Arabia etc, and any serious, non-Mickey Mouse version of religion has , really, nothing to say in the generally-accepted worship of Money and Comfort.Already, the shallow deism of Franklin etc missed all the important points, as history since has shown: States can rely on the support of religious leaders, essentially because they fear the people in the same sort of way. Chomsky pointed out how, in the 80’s, a very intellectual commission noted the disturbing rise of a “democratic challenge”, by which the learned liberals meant the dissent shown by groups which had emerged from the civil rights, anti-Vietnam etc days. Money is the root of all evil but virtually every pastor and pundit worships it.

  6. Norman

    I take it from the way this pastor from Tennessee talks, that GOD/JESUS, was/is lily white, that only those talking ministers in the Southern U.S.A. are the true children of GOD. Yet, they, the religious orators down there, think the U.S. should stand behind the Israeli’s, who consider themselves the chosen ones. Seems that there’s a conflict here? Unless I’m off/out of my tree, The story of GOD telling of the Eastern Religions were out of bounds for the Christians. What I find quite disheartening, is how these Southern Christan groups write the Bible to favor them, that they consider their brand above every other one. In effect, they preach bigotry from the pulpit. Instead of preaching Love, calling for the downfall of bigotry, they embrace it, which I consider blasphemy.

  7. scott

    Let me say that I find Islam avoids many of the pitfalls of the Christian Church. Money is not a big issue in the mosque. Most mosques are essentially simple and austere places. There is literally no furniture, the worshipers pray on a carpeted rug. There aren’t really the various sects in Islam that we see in Christian Churches. Churches seem segregated according to race, ethnicity and income. The mosque has a different function. Mosques are community centers and in most Muslim countries adherents simply go to the closest one. In the Christian Church even if income, race, ethnicity and social status are all equal, there is pastor shopping. The church makes fiefdoms out of parishes, often creating a rockstar status for preachers. In Mosques imam’s come and go to different mosques, the jhutba (or Friday sermon) is the only discretionary part of the service, the prayers are taken literally from the Quran.

    Other aspects of religion generally related to governance, Islam is the only tradition that still holds interest (riba) to be bad. Though the Old and New Testaments forbid charging usury only Islam still enforces this. Same too with fasting, not eating meat but fish alternatively is not fasting the way Jesus did it in the dessert. (was there a lot of fish in the desert for Jesus to eat when he fasted for 40 days and nights?)

    Islam has its issues, but it strikes me as the most tolerant and pragmatic tradition of the lot. It doesn’t fear science, doubt or inquiry. The imams (and adherents) are not centrally controlled, but each has the burden of their actions and choices to be accountable for. (The Quran makes an interesting argument: Allah can forgive you for your sins against him, not praying, fasting and the like; but, when we sin against our neighbor, only they can offer you forgiveness.)

  8. rosemerry

    I was brought up in the 1940s and 1950s Australia as a Catholic, but neither parents nor school tried to tell us others were wrong or to be criticised, and we had friends of many religions or none. Nobody insists that others should become homosexual, have abortions, divorce etc, and these should not be a matter for the law. Murder, child molestation, rape and other attacks on liberty obviously should be treated as crimes. So-called Christians who attack “enemies” all over the world are not following any normal appreciation of Christian beliefs

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