Update: 04.13.17: NPR reports that the Alabama State Senate has approved a bill allowing Briarwood Presbyterian Church to form its own police force. The measure has yet to be voted on by the House.
Religion needs to leave behind the hate
|Ed. note: This is a long read, over 8,000 words in length. Worth your time? Absolutely. We wouldn’t have posted it if we thought it were waste. However, coming at the time it does, right smack in the middle of our month-long fashion coverage for Pattern, we’ve not had the normal level of resources to double check what was being written. There may still be some misspellings or improper verb associations. If so, we apologize. Please consider sharing this post to fuel the conversation necessary. Let us know if you find an error.|
The Short Version
Religion has come to the front of the headlines the past two weeks as the 45th president denounces anti-semitic violence but is still berated by the Anne Frank Center. At the same time, Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Alabama is asking to establish its own police force. All this as the president re-writes a travel ban affecting primarily Muslim nations. Our relationship with religion has disintegrated to being a flash point for violence. However, religion itself may be responsible for inciting the hate.
First, the facts
Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a 4,100-member megachurch located in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, has requested of that state’s legislature the ability to form its own police department. The model for that request is based on the university police departments at higher education facilities around the state. Briarwood operates a k-12 Christian School as well as Birmingham Theological Seminary. As of yesterday (February 21, 2017), the bill had been introduced in both houses of the state legislature.
Meanwhile, over the course of the past week, bomb threats were sent to 11 Jewish community centers and over 170 tombstones were toppled at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. The president had twice refused to answer reporters’ questions regarding what he would do in response to anti-semitic violence. Then, yesterday, he finally made a statement:
The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.
However, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect says the president’s statement is too little, too late. In a Facebook post, the center’s director said:
“The President’s sudden acknowledgment is a Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own Administration. His statement today is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record. Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration. The White House repeatedly refused to mention Jews in its Holocaust remembrance, and had the audacity to take offense when the world pointed out the ramifications of Holocaust denial. And it was only yesterday, President’s Day, that Jewish Community Centers across the nation received bomb threats, and the President said absolutely nothing. When President Trump responds to Antisemitism proactively and in real time, and without pleas and pressure, that’s when we’ll be able to say this President has turned a corner. This is not that moment.”
Underscoring all these activities is the recent chaos from the hastily applied ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries which has been stayed by federal courts. Reports from February 10 of this year state that the ban is being rewritten, but that the same seven countries continue to be targeted.
A little history
The United States has always had a difficult relationship with managing religion. The original settlers, the ones we refer to as Pilgrims, were Puritan Congregationalists, known as Brownists, and had fled Holland to escape religious persecution. Ironically enough, once they established a settlement in North America, they became extremely intolerant of any other religious belief system. That was 1620. Ideologically, not much has changed since that time.
Among the framers of the US Constitution were several whose relationships with religion were something less than what one might have been taught in Sunday School. In a letter to Ezra Stile, President of Yale, written shortly before his death, Benjamin Franklin said:
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.
Franklin, despite his personal misgivings, was a tolerant man, however. He found “no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in His government of the world with any particular marks of His displeasure.”
Let me translate that last bit for you: Dr. Franklin that whatever deity (he never mentions God directly) might be in control would not consider unbelief something to get terribly upset about. Franklin saw a benefit in mutual respect and unified moral teaching that might be achieved through religion. He did not, however, see it being beneficial to government.
Thomas Jefferson was even more pointed in his opinions. He was writing a section in his autobiography about the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom when he penned these words:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel of every denomination.
If that was indeed the opinion of “the great majority,” as Jefferson implies, that opinion didn’t last for long or at least only applied strictly to government as popular opinion held that the United States was a Christian nation and that, as such, no other forms of religious observance was acceptable.
I should also point out that the term “Christian” in this particular context, should be taken to mean protestant Christianity. Catholics have often felt the sting of popular discrimination as well. The arrival of Franciscan monks in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1844 nearly caused riots as the monks walked down the streets and throughout the South, both prior to and after the Civil War, Catholics were considered subversive because their bible was different from the King James version used by protestants.
We should also note that as much as the white supremacy movement has been about race, it has also been very much about religion, with Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and even atheists having historically been targets of the various hate groups. This sad tragedy continues right up to this very moment.
Religion hating religion
There is nothing I can do to stop religious persecution or discrimination beyond my own actions and activities. Individually, the same applies to everyone reading this. The problem with religious intolerance starts with religion itself and its ability, whether intentional or not, to create extremists. If society, especially American society, is to ever get past this life-long problem we have with religious intolerance, the religions themselves need to deal firmly with the intolerance they themselves perpetuate.
And adding a police force isn’t going to help any.
Mind you, I’m not sure any of the religious organizations in the United States see themselves as part of the problem. All religions tend to view themselves as the solution to the problem caused by everyone else who, at the very least, is terribly misguided.
Please allow me to use my own history as an example.
As long-time readers know, I was raised Southern Baptist. My father was a pastor of small, mostly rural churches. A regular part of the indoctrination, from as early as I can remember, involved the need to know everything “wrong” with every other denomination and why only Southern Baptists were getting it right. In abbreviated form, the litany went something like this:
The Church of Christ was totally misinterpreting what the bible says about musical instruments. Free Will Baptists were wrong about “losing” one’s salvation. Methodists were absolute lunatics for baptizing babies (there was a standing joke about getting in out of the rain lest the sprinkles turn one into a Methodist). Presbyterian belief in predestination precluded any need for the gospel. Lutherans encouraged alcoholism by using real wine in their sacraments. And Catholics? Catholicism was a cult.
Can you see how those very basic teachings bred complete contempt for anyone and anything different? The juxtaposition made for a very strange sermon: God wants us to love everyone and make them just like us. That same kind of underhanded intolerance applied to non-religious differences as well, including what one wore, how one’s hair was styled, how gender defined one’s role in society, and how sexuality was a sin. What were minor points of difference that should be set aside were actually an indoctrination of hate.
Not that anyone ever sees what they’re doing as hate. One typically has to step outside religion to come at the problem from that perspective. The religions themselves like to think they’re pushing a message of peace, love, and forgiveness, and to a limited extent, that is true. However, in their insistence that devotees of their religion be “pure” and “faithful” to their beliefs at the total and complete exclusion of everything else, they lay a foundation for exactly the opposite of what they claim to desire.
When religions use phrases such as “be full of the Spirit,” and “be wholly consumed in devotion to God,” and “know nothing but the will of God,” regardless of what the intention might actually be, the effect is to lay in the cornerstone of extremism. While most people are, thankfully, not committed enough to their religion to act on such extremism, it only takes a handful to wreak complete chaos and perpetuate the intolerance and misunderstandings between peoples of the world.
Among Christians specifically, the misinterpretation of scripture such as Romans 12:1-2 don’t help the matter any at all. I don’t think most pastors consider the extreme that can be reached from these verses:
1Therefore I urge you, brothers, on account of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
Do you catch the danger phrases? Lifting things totally out of context, the phrases “offer your bodies as living sacrifices,” and “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed …” are the type of verbiage extremists latch onto when defending attitudes, opinion, and behavior that are in direct contradiction with the religion itself. Tell the wrong person to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” and the next thing you know they’ve strapped a bomb to their chest and are heading for the nearest mosque or shooting at people coming out of a synagogue.
The phrases are not unique to Christianity, though. They exist in virtually every major religion; statements of exclusivity that emphasize how that those holding to one specific belief system are the only ones worthy of salvation and that everyone else is unworthy, or infidels, and deserving death. Never mind that the death being spoken of is metaphorical or, at the very least, spiritual. Every time someone says their scripture is “the literal word of God,” they are adding to the extremist’s mentality of hate and violence. “Deserving of death,” in their minds, becomes “license to kill.”
I’m unconvinced that there is anything that stops extremism. The number of people given to it can be reduced, I am sure. Hate has a way of finding an excuse, though, and even if it were possible to completely remove the religious equation from society, and it’s not, hate would still be there rearing its ugly head in the name of some form of belief system, whether political, spiritual, or possibly even culinary (some folks gets really uptight about pork).
Still, there is much that religion can do in not only reducing extremism within their ranks, but eliminating the undercurrents that allow that extremism to flourish in the first place. Unfortunately, doing so means up giving some presumed authority on moral matters as they relate to society at large. Religions have to first and foremost allow people to exist, all people, without any presumption of guilt or exercise of judgment. What I’m about to suggest is not going to set well with hardline conservatives within any camp because they refuse to give up any ground at all. They insist that their way is correct and fail to see how such a stance invokes hate and intolerance that snuffs out any sermon on peace. Yet, for those of a more reasonable nature, and just for the sake of making it a matter of public record, here are some things that must happen.
Reaching outside yourself
A lot of religions think they’re involved outside of their own bubbles. They have all these “ministries” to which they claim some level of commitment. Child care. Single moms. Teens. Homeless. Some ministries are more effective than others but all of it gives a religion the feeling that it is making a difference in their community and many actually are. The question comes now, given our previous statements, are they doing enough?
Let’s consider for a moment the situation at Briarwood. When I first saw the story I couldn’t help wondering what might lead this storied congregation down a path to where they felt that they need their own police force. Surely this was more than just petty thieves here and there. What could be the motivation behind such action?
Of course, the official line from the church is that the move allows them to create a safer environment “in a fallen world.” The very language of their statement reeks of exclusivity at the very time they need to be reaching deeper into their community. Calling all that is outside of the church “a fallen world” is condescending, claiming a superiority that the unchurched world isn’t willing to recognize. Without having done anything physical, the church has already established a wall between itself and the community. Adding a police force only heightens that wall.
At the same time, there are religions that are afraid to open up to communities that have already been hostile toward them. The lack of understanding on both sides of the equation creates a tense and uncertain environment that is lacking in trust simply because one side doesn’t know enough about the other to create an informed and enlightened opinion.
The solution for either type of religion is simple in theory but extremely difficult, and sometimes expensive, in practice: do unto the least of these.
Here’s the thing: those who are at the same middle-class economic level as the church, synagogue, or mosque don’t need that much, if any, help outside of emergency situations. Those who need the help are those who many religions cast off because they’re too poor. They have nothing to offer the church economically and until that person’s need is resolved they’ve nothing to offer the religion in return. They are what I’ve heard some clerics refer to as “a drain on the system.”
Yet, that is exactly where religions need to be if they want to begin breaking down the barriers and developing a sense of mutual trust and understanding, something that mutes the hate rather than stoking the fire. When people drive by and see a huge edifice worth millions of dollars, the communication is that the religion would rather spend money on itself than the poor and needy around them. That the religion may already have ministries allegedly addressing needs is insufficient. As long as there are poor, as long as there are those suffering, as long as there is anyone going hungry, money spent on buildings and internally-focused programs is hypocritical.
Nothing is going to take the suspicion away from a religion faster than feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, housing the homeless so long as it is done without an attempt at proselytizing. Historically, however, religions haven’t been too good at not trying to convert those they help. They’ll feed the hungry, as long as the hungry listen to a sermon first. They’ll clothe the poor who come to the church or synagogue or mosque to get the clothing, not realizing the intimidating effect of a religious facility. They’ll house the homeless as long as the homeless attend their weekly services in return.
I’ve seen those programs. I’ve seen the judgment and animosity they create. People inside the congregation either look down on those they’re helping or are jealous that, “no one ever helped me with anything.”
For religion to make any progress in reducing hate, they must give with absolutely no strings attached, with no expectation of any return, and no complaining when the service eats through the budget faster than expected.
There were moments when my father was ahead of those around him, such as when he swapped pulpits with a black pastor in the midst of the civil rights movement. He made some enemies within the denomination when he did that, but he knew it was the right thing to do in building bridges within a community on the verge of becoming violent. He never shied away from opportunities to meet with other religious leaders, even though he knew little about their belief systems, but again, doing so almost always caused ripples of unrest within his congregation.
We lived in Southeastern Oklahoma when the Iranian hostage situation occurred. On one level, that politically-induced tragedy didn’t affect us. There was no one of Middle Eastern heritage in our small town. There were some Iranian students at the local junior college a town over, but the State Department quickly whisked them away for their own safety. While we watched the situation unfold on television, there were no practical means of immediately understanding the Muslim perspective nor their religion.
As the situation continued and anger grew, a rabbi from the nearest synagogue, nearly 100 miles away, suggested a gathering of clerics from across the region. The event would simply be an opportunity to develop understanding between the different religions so they would be better able to address the anger in their communities before it erupted into violence. Poppa received an invitation and promptly replied that he would attend. However, others within the denomination did not approve of the event. They couldn’t be ecumenical, they said, because in refusing to accept the deity of Christ there was no common ground on around which a conversation could occur.
Never mind that all three major religions represented, Christian, Judaism, and Islam, all share a common Abrahamic heritage. Tension grew within the clerical community to the point that the event was canceled to prevent any further friction.
Where there is not understanding between religious leaders hate and distrust grows between the people of their faiths. People of faith respect and follow the actions of their leaders, no matter what the religious hierarchy may be. If an iman voices distrust in a Christian leader, those around him will hold the same distrust. If a rabbi speaks disparagingly toward a Muslim leader, be sure the members of his synagogue are likely to do the same. When a Southern Baptist pastor demonizes the pope, his entire congregation develops a distrust for all Catholics. As those statements and habits are repeated from one religious leader to the next, distrust, fear, and a severe lack of understanding eventually develop into full-fledged hate that is willing to justify violence.
I have never understood how so many religious leaders come to the conclusion that to talk with their counterparts among other religions somehow involves a compromise of their own faith. We are not giving anything up when we simply enter into a conversation. We still hold tight to our own beliefs. No one has the power to take anything from us. Yet, just getting clerics of any faith to sit down and talk with someone outside their religion proves difficult.
Hate and distrust grow anywhere we do not illuminate. When religions sequester themselves within their own bubble, they place their beliefs in the shadows for anyone outside. It is not enough to suggest that someone read the approved literature on a different religion because the literature itself is biased and steeped in verbiage and nomenclature that is foreign to someone not already familiar with the religious system. The path to understanding, the path to peace, is found in relationships of mutual respect for one another.
I find it interesting that it is relatively simple for me, from the outside, to find unifying messages of peace, harmony, and love within all the world’s major religions. The texts are obvious about the importance of those attributes. Yet, those who should know those texts the best seem unable to find the common ground between people of diverse faith.
When religions finally begin talking openly to one another, placing aside their fears and opening their hearts before opening their mouths, we will see hate decline.
Leading The Way
Peace does not come from governments and politicians. War comes from governments and politicians because war creates the illusion of power. Desire for power inherently corrupts as it creates a stranglehold on those who attempt to wield it. We have only to look at the obnoxiousness coming from our own government entities and personalities to see how this plays out. Why did the US president not immediately condemn anti-semitic violence? To retain power among the base of white supremacists partially responsible for his election. Why did the Israeli prime minister not challenge the US president on his silence? To retain a positive relationship with the power that comes from being allied to the US president.
If looking to governments for peace is folly, then where are we to look? While there are many possible answers to that question, the one that makes the most sense, the one that already has the structure built in to make an immediate and lasting impact around the world is religion. As religions are no longer limited to a specific geography, they have the unique ability to spread a message decisively and quickly to their adherents, reaching more people and affecting more action than any government could ever hope to achieve.
Here is where religious hierarchy comes into play because I know at the individual congregation level there are already those who are attempting to do that very thing. Ask almost any member of the clergy who has a predominantly urban congregation challenged by the reality of inner-city violence. They will tell you that the influence of religion has a strong impact on what happens in their communities. Where religious influence is the strongest, violence declines. Hate between rivals dissipates. Not because anyone is converting entire gangs or getting people to trade in guns for religious texts. People of faith are effective when they simply lay down an expectation for peace above all in their communities.
Now, if individual clerics can lead their congregations to exert an expectation of peace within a single community, why are those within religious hierarchies not creating similar expectations across larger geographies? Religious leaders who do not lead toward peace, respect, and understanding show themselves to be little more than the religious equivalent of the power mongers we see in governments, and the results are almost exactly the same. Religious corruption is just as real and just as damning as political corruption and as long as it is ignored and tolerated and even supported at the congregational level, that corruption continues to generate hate and distrust that leads to violence and destruction.
The solution is painful to those in seats of religious power, but it must happen. We need Christian pastors to publicly and forcibly denounce hate toward Muslims. We need imams to publicly and forcibly support the right of Jews to exist not only in their homeland but wherever they wish around the world. We need rabbis to publicly and forcibly denounce the antagonism for anyone who is not Jewish.
Understand, we do not need sermons on peace in general terms. We need leaders who speak in specific terms in specific communities. After what happened in Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery every congregation in Missouri, regardless of faith, should be hearing homilies not only teaching why the toppling of tombstones was wrong, but how the hate behind that act is destructive. No one should have any question but what that act was worthy of condemnation in the strongest language possible.
The situation at that Missouri cemetery is a good place for examples to be set. As people from all over the St. Louis area gathered to help repair the tombstones, Muslim activists raised over $70,000 to help cover the costs. This is exactly the kind of religious leadership needed to put an end to the hate directed toward people of different faiths. Yet, that leadership needs to be at even higher levels for the message to become universal. There are people of every faith willing and ready to follow a message of peace and understanding if only people will step to the front and lead.
One of the major aspects breeding animosity toward religion is when people, especially nonbelievers, see extremists and flamboyant clerics spouting off propaganda well outside the mainstream of their religion without any retribution. Giving into the whole freedom of speech issue applies only to government. Religions themselves not only have the right but the responsibility to reign in those who misrepresent their religion in ways that not only breed hate, sometimes on both sides, but grossly mislead those who are truly faithful.
For Americans, names such as Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, and Creflo Dollar are among the more recognizable names of so-called “preachers” who operate without any oversight, saying whatever they please, stirring hate and anger, and doing a disservice to all of Christianity while swaying the loyalties of many looking to that religion for guidance. We may not so quickly recognize the names of extremists from other religions, such as Allama Kaukab Noorani Okarvi, Rabbi Berl Lazar, or Chandraswami. Yet, each is guilty of manipulating their religions, even if it is out at extreme fringes, for their own benefit, whether political or financial.
We have reached a point in world relations where it only takes one religious extremist to inflame the hatred of thousands towards other religions. Take, for example, that time back in December of 2015 when Pat Robertson declared that Islam is not a religion. How is that not considered hate speech? Yet, too many people dismissed the statement as the continued ramblings of a senile old man who just happens to have a television program watched by millions of devout Christians.
Words like these are not innocent. Statements like Robertson’s cannot be allowed to continue without severe and immediate repercussions and those consequences need to come from within the religion itself, not government. Religious leaders have to take a public stand against those within their own denomination, within their broader religion, to stop the inflammatory rhetoric. Shut down their support systems that steal funding from local congregants. Pressure them to be removed from cable networks and public media systems. Take away their audience.
Religious leaders have to be held accountable at a strict level we’ve not seen before because the results of their incendiary speech are inciting religious-based violence and hate crimes like we’ve never seen before. This is a major religious issue and to the extent that religions refuse to address it for themselves, they leave the entire religious body open to criticism and condemnation from those affected by the actions of a few.
Something religions seem to have difficulty understanding is that they are not obligated to let those who use their name to say anything they wish and remain under that religious umbrella. Christians are not required to tolerate Joel Osteen. They have every right to shut him up and throw him out because what he says is not Christian. Muslims have every right to defrock Allama Okarvi and shame him into silence. His words are not those of true Islam and everyone within Islam knows that.
Strict religious discipline within the religion, and not external to it, is a necessity for a religion to maintain any cohesiveness or moral authority among their members. I know this bristles those who believe in a congregationalist form of religious governance. There are those who resist hard against any kind of authority outside their own body. I get it. Yet, without some form of external authority, there is a very real and very severe danger of those congregations becoming nothing more than radicalized social clubs bent on hating those who are not like them.
I’ve seen it happen. Small, rural, Southern Baptist churches whose pastors are not required to have any actual religious training, become swept up in the rhetoric of a fire-and-brimstone preacher who blames societies perceived ills, especially problems that don’t even come close to affecting the congregation but are observed through the media, on Muslims, or blacks, or Jews, or immigrants, or Catholics.
Rural pastors garner a lot of respect within their small towns. People listen to what they have to say. Preachers are often considered the ultimate authority figure in that they are that communities moral representative anointed by God. So when a pastor stands behind a pulpit and denounces the “scourge” of Muslims as being a threat to the nation, those words stick in the minds of his congregation. Never mind that most of them have never knowingly met a Muslim and are not, within their small community, likely to do so. They are all now convinced that a different religion is responsible for the world’s problems.
How does that perpetuate hate?
A young man I came across in high school couldn’t wait to get out of his small town and off to college. The small town didn’t have anything to offer him and he was certain he would make it big at the university. Upon arriving at the university, however, he was introduced to people and cultures that hadn’t existed back where he grew up. The “outside” world was different. There were people of every different color, with difficult to understand accents, wearing clothes that seemed strange and with religious habits he didn’t understand.
At first, this young man took his new environment as a challenge. He would be a “witness” for his God and attempt to “save” as many as he could. Not only were his efforts fruitless, however, but he found others disliked him for daring to insinuate that their own faith was insufficient or unacceptable. He became more and more marginalized within his dorm until he came across a small group of guys equally frustrated. They were all white, all devout members of their church, and all tired of having to apologize for what they saw as God-ordained evangelism.
In an ideal world, they would have found ways to share their religion without being insulting. While such methods don’t rack up high numbers of converts, they do exist within the tenets of most every religion. These young men, unfortunately, did not look for those methods. Instead, they took a more violent route, attacking an Iranian medical student in a parking lot and leaving him for dead. Everyone involved in the crime was eventually caught, convicted, and expelled from the university (along with appropriate jail sentences).
As much as I would like to say that was a lone event from 40 years ago, I can’t. All across the country, those same type of events keep happening. Again, just this week, in Olathe, Kansas, a former air traffic controller in a crowded bar yelled, “Get out of my country!” along with a host of racial slurs and then shot at what he thought were two Middle Eastern men, killing one, wounding the other, and also wounding another local man trying to stop the shooting. Here’s the thing: the men he shot weren’t Middle Eastern. They werent Muslim. They were Indian. They were Hindu. Just the fact that they weren’t white was enough for one ignorant man to decide to kill them.
Olathe, Kansas is a very small town. I’ve been there more than once. The town is so small, in fact, that there’s a Southern Baptist church directly across the street from that bar. The churches in Olathe are the most dominant influence in that town. People listen to the pastors of those churches when they’ll listen to no one else. The sermons they preach this Sunday are critical. While I’m quite sure none of them directly intend to perpetuate hate, without directly addressing attitudes such as the one expressed in the bar, they participate in hate’s spread toward both Muslims and Hindus and other non-Christian religions.
I am aware that all major religions have a number of different factions and there is no one within any of them that can speak with authority over the entire religion. Yet, there is someone at the top of every denomination, every variation, every off-shoot who can, at the very least, strongly influence those under them.
Avoiding Political Entanglement
Far too many of the problems that exist in this current state of existence owe their origination to the fact that too many governments hold an allegiance to one or more religions, some more formally than others. Within the United States, our Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion and prevents the government from hindering the “free exercise” of any religion. Yet, the concept that we are, or should be, a Christian nation is still dominant. Dominant to the point that many radicals spent eight years claiming that president Barak Obama was unfit for office based on the incorrect assumption that he is Muslim. He’s not. He never was. The amount of hate spewed toward president Obama for religious reasons was unprecedented for the United States.
However, such associations between government leaders and religions are hardly new. Even now, the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom must, by law, be a member of the Church of England and the monarch is the titular head of that religious body. While Queen Elizabeth II is directly involved in religious affairs even less than she is matters of state, the very fact that such a connection still exists underlines the ubiquity of a global problem that has done little more than producing hate and violence for the past two millennia.
Here, we have to stop and give serious consideration as to whether the world would still be as dangerous were governments with strong religious affiliations replaced with secular ones. The answer is probably not as clear cut as one might want. Two of the world’s largest superpowers, Russia and China, are officially atheistic. Yet, one might argue that their communist ideals hold the same emotional if not spiritual value for their adherents as would any formally accepted religion. The only major difference between ideology and theology is having a central figure who is worshiped. So, to assume that the world would be any safer by removing all religiously-enabled governments is likely absurd.
Still, we look across the world at the places where governments are detached from any religious preference, including atheism, and we see a much more peaceful existence within those countries than we do the world at large. Consider the list of the most peaceful countries in the world as calculated by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). The list for 2017 looks like this:
- New Zealand
- Czech Republic
Now, for the sake of brevity, which almost seems laughable as we just passed the 6,000-word mark, let’s look at just the top five of those countries and check their relationship to religion.
Iceland: Officially, there is a state church of Iceland and the government pays the salaries of its ministers. The primary purpose of the state church, however, is telling: it operates all the cemeteries across the countries. Also, officially, there is a religious tax that Icelandic people pay. That tax, however, doesn’t necessarily go to the state church. Instead, it goes to whatever religious or philosophical organization to which one belongs. Don’t belong to any philosophical organizations? Fine. The money goes into the general fund. From a more practical point of view, Iceland has one of the most secular societies in the world. Even though churches do exist, attendance is extremely low and their authority within the country is largely non-existent. Until you die.
Denmark: As with Iceland, the Church of Denmark is the state’s official religion and has a strong history of influence in the country. However, the government’s website says of the church, “Denmark is also among the world’s most secularised countries, in which religion and Christianity play only a minor, often indirect, role in public life.” The country’s “striving for the Church of Denmark to become more independent, with a looser association to the state.” The potential for conflict with Arab immigrants has grown over the past few years, but even there are efforts to avoid problems before they occur. “In the so-called Arabian Initiative the Danish government is seeking to build positive relations with Muslim countries. This initiative also includes projects promoting religious dialogue which is supported by the majority of Denmark’s religious communities.”
Austria: We’ve all seen The Sound of Music, right? 60% of Austrians still identify themselves as Catholic. While the country’s Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion, just as the US Constitution does, defining any portion of Austria’s population as strictly secular would be incorrect. Instead, we do best to consider the country pluralistic, which is the way Austria defines itself. In a 2015 speech, Austria’s Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, put it this way:
In Australia the role of government is to be secular. But that is not the nature of Australian society. We are not a secular society, we are a pluralist society. That means everyone is entitled to their faith, and to express it so long as they do no harm to others.
But pluralism means more than just faith. It also means pluralism for people based on other factors, such as ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. To have a pluralist society we have to have laws that respect everyone’s individuality and accommodate for everyone’s unique needs, this is especially true for religion.
New Zealand: If you’re beginning to think that I’m just typing the same thing over and over again, you’re not alone. There is a great deal here that is identical across all five countries, which is probably worth noting. New Zealand is also predominantly Christian, with the Anglican church being dominant. As with the other countries, however, religious adherence outside of major ceremonies around the beginning and end of life has dropped significantly. There has also been a blending within the denominations themselves where Māori have their own versions of Christian denominations. While the number of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists have increased with recent immigration, New Zealand’s attitude of letting everyone alone to set their own path has worked well in helping to keep matters peaceful.
Portugal: It wasn’t all that long ago when the phrase “to be Portuguese is to be Catholic” applied across this critical European country. In fact, the Church held a tight grip on the country until the latter part of the 20th century. However, as the influence of the Church waned after World War II, attitudes shifted and in 1976 Portugal adopted a new Constitution that permanently separates the roles of Church and State. Since then, the influence of the Church has fallen from first to eighth among all social groups. Moral issues once considered within the responsibility of the Church have instead been decided by those outside it. Today, to be Portuguese is to be of whatever faith one wants without any interference.
Note the commonality across all these countries. They have all moved from a strongly Christian background to one that is either immensely secular or, at the very least, highly pluralistic. Religious establishments have had to step back and allow their influence to wane in order for the countries to become the peaceful places they are now. The same holds true for almost all the other countries on the top twenty list.
The exceptions would be Japan and Bhutan. Japan’s path has been relatively similar to European countries, transitioning from a blend of Shintoism and Buddhism to a more secular society. Only Bhutan, a landlocked Asian country located wholly within the Himalayan mountain range, still holds strongly to a dominant religion. Mahayana (tantric) Buddhism is the official state religion and practiced by some 75% of the small country’s inhabitants. Unlike other major religions, however, the goal of Mahayana is not to evangelize or “save” the world, but rather to achieve an elevated state of being by becoming one with and respecting not only other people but every aspect of the physical world. As a result, people of Bhutan are not only inherently peaceful, but have a strong concern for the preservation of the environment and animal rights.
What we see, on the whole, is that dramatically reducing the social influence of authoritarian religions is a significant and helpful factor in reducing the amount of hate present within a country. While that obviously may not be the solution that religious leadership wants to hear, the practice has born true time and time again in country after country. Mahayana works in Bhutan because it is an inherently peace-oriented religion but it is unreasonable to expect \entire nations to achieve something that Bhutan has been cultivating for centuries. Bhutan’s geographic isolation likely participates in their success as well. For almost every other country, however, the complete removal of religion from political influence and a reduction of its social authority is critical to establishing a consistent environment of peace.
Conclusions and considerations
A lot has happened since I started right this article Tuesday morning. I never fully intended for it to be as long as it has become, but I didn’t want to leave out any necessary part of the conversation, either. Even now, I’m not fully convinced but what there isn’t more we need to discuss.
What’s important, though, is that the discussion begins in earnest, that we take seriously the impact of religion in cultivating hate toward its counterparts and even toward secularism itself. Backed into a corner with their power and authority at risk, the religious establishment frightens me. There are still a large number of charismatic leaders across all the major religions who can marshall a very large number of supporters to do their bidding, even if that bidding is not legal. While those majorities whose religious views are centrist and not overly committal may not be at risk, there are still hundreds of thousands, if not millions on the fringes, already marginally radicalized, and willing to make themselves “a living sacrifice” for their deity.
Religions could take away much of the sting from such a transition themselves simply by changing the language they use to avoid terms that are unnecessarily exclusionary or even elitist. Surely it is possible to teach the tenets of one’s religion without needing to refer to others as “unclean” or “infidels.” Referring to yourself as a “sinner” is one thing, but to project that title onto someone from outside your religious belief system is insulting and inflammatory. The decision to make religion offensive is one largely made by the people in pulpits and the leaders who put them there. Change that attitude, change that rhetoric, and we’re more than half-way to achieving a level of peace this planet has not known in the modern era.
I shuddered this past week when the vice-president proclaimed loudly and proudly that the world would know that the US stands with Israel. Mr. Pence might as well reach out and sucker punch the heads of state for every country in the Middle East that is predominantly Muslim. Whether he intended for his words to be offensive is irrelevant and any apology he might give now is empty. As a representative of the United States government, the vice-president made a statement that effectively establishes a level of religious favoritism that quite likely, in a finite sense, violates the First Amendment. This is not the first time such a statement has been made, but it needs to be the last and steps must be taken to make sure that it never happens again without severe and immediate repercussions.
Religious leaders have an important choice. Either they can tone down the rhetoric and step back to a more leisure place in American life that they fashion for themselves, or they can risk becoming like Denmark when the only time people think of religion is when they die. Already, the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religious belief system has grown from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 in 2014. By even the most conservative estimates, more than a quarter of Americans are now totally unaffiliated with any form of religion or organized spiritual philosophy. This comes while every form of Christianity has seen a serious decline in terms of both membership and attendance. Change is going to happen. Religious leaders can either claim a place at the table or find themselves victims a secularization that shuts them out, in part, because they are too hateful toward other people.
Those who drive religions, all over them, not just Christianity, need to desperately get back in touch with the peaceful tenets of their teachings, the ones that focus on being a better individual, on helping others, on providing an example of selflessness, not selfishness. Religions must look to growth mechanisms not based in fear or shaming. Threatening to bomb one’s place of worship because they are merely a different sect under the same religious umbrella does not serve your deity at all. There is a core of peace, love, and harmony within every religion out there. Adherents need to find that core, stick to that core, teach that core, and not be persuaded to move from it.
In no way do I want anyone to think I condone a world without religion. Too many people need something that answers life’s larger questions for them: the question of why am I here, what is my purpose, and where am I going. For some, religion is a point of comfort, a sense of security, and I would not suggest that those people be denied the good things that can come from religion. When religions adhere to their core, when they demonstrate love through acts of charity and selflessness, when they feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and provide medical care to the ill without expecting even as much as a thank you in return, that is when religion is a benefit to society. That is a religion with which we can co-exist.
What we can no longer tolerate is a religion that attempts to dominate all others, religions that consider themselves exclusive holders of God’s favor, religions that place repugnant and offensive titles on those not part of their elite membership, religions that look to usurp government and establish theocracies, religions that look to impose their limited and narrow moralities upon people who hold to a different belief system, or religions that perpetuate any form of hate among people of color, sexuality, gender, marital status, or any other form of social or personal identification. These are the religions that have brought us to the unacceptable point we now find ourselves. These are the religions that excuse the dismantling of headstones, encourage the burning of a mosque in Florida, and look right past the murder of Hindus in Kansas.
We can no longer tolerate religions that say one has a right to a parcel of land to the exclusion of another religion. We can no longer tolerate religions that encourage the ongoing animosity between other religions.
Those within religious bodies must look up from their constant self-serving prayers that never cease a litany of favors requested from their deity, realize the messengers of hate that their religions have become, and press those in leadership to either make a change or be replaced. Religions do not exist without followers. Now is perhaps the time for those who have followed to become the leaders toward a new direction, back to core beliefs, back to inclusion and peace.
We have often heard the phrase, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.”
Religion in America specifically, and to a lesser extent around the world, faces that same choice. Those coming behind us, those who hold an intelligence we never knew, those who understand the meaning of life from a very different perspective where answers are not found in ancient texts but in double-blind studies with extensive peer review, those who have no long-standing regard for pointless traditions, are growing rapidly in number. They are much better than my generation at rejecting hate. At the same time, however, they are also, in overwhelming numbers rejecting religion.
The “easy way” is for the religious to adjust themselves, find a different way of communicating, and demonstrating core values that are not patently offensive to the rest of the world.
The “hard way” is for the religious to remain indignant and defiant as their numbers decrease, until they are seen as nothing more than doddering old fools, and their empty buildings are left to disintegrate into rubble.
Make a choice. One way or the other, this hate has to end.