Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Benefits of Benign Religion

This is sort of a followup to my last post about David Brooks' column. Earlier in the week, via Andrew Sullivan, I read a post on the blog Positive Liberty about whether Muslim religious fundamentalism and intolerance can be moderated. The writer suggested that it can if it has an America-like experience. American history and particularly the American founders toned down the fundamentalism and intolerance of the various religious sects and taught them how to get along with one another:

This is a book I am going to try to read this summer. Check out Bruce Bawer, one of the finest essayists of the modern era, discussing Europe and Islam on Bill Moyers’ show. The book is about how tolerant Europe has become too tolerant of intolerant Muslims, and how they, in turn, threaten Europe’s live and let live lifestyle.

Moyers seemed to stress over and over again — but this isn’t the way most Muslims are, right? In my community college classes, I usually have at least one (sometimes more) Muslim in a class of 25+. I also have plenty of traditional Christians, liberal Christians, Jewish students, atheists, agnostics, and so on and so forth. Whenever I criticize the more extreme elements of Islam, I always stress that most Muslims say this doesn’t represent the authentic version of their faith. Now, in truth, I have no idea whether I’m right and may well be engaging in a Straussian lie. But, if Islam, as a faith, isn’t going away — and I don’t think it is — Muslims must be convinced that a more liberal, sober and rational understanding of their faith is the authentic one. This is exactly what Madison tried to do with Christians in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

Indeed, how we deal with intolerant religions reflects a paradox in Founding thought. Rick Garnett discussed it here and I responded with my thoughts. The paradox is, the rights of conscience are so profound government has no business saying what is true or false religion. Yet, government indeed does have an interest in promoting the “right” kind of religion, that is religion compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms.

Our Founders did to Christianity what the modern liberal governments and institutions, are, or ought to be doing to Islam (like telling folks extreme Islam doesn’t represent authentic Islam).

Almost all of the most notable Christian thinkers from the pre-Founding era differed with our Founders on tolerance and the freedom to worship. John Calvin knew the Bible as well as anyone but thought it entirely proper to see see Servetus burned at the stake simply for publicly denying the Trinity. Likewise, Calvinist Samuel Rutherford, who purportedly influenced our revolution, too thought it just for Servetus to be executed in that manner. All of the early colonies except Rhode Island didn’t grant freedom to worship and often imposed brutal punishments sometimes executions, for worshipping the “wrong” way. And they all justified such with textual appeals to the Bible.

To our Founders (the most notable of whom, like Servetus, weren’t even “real Christians” but unitarians) this was not authentic Christianity, or Christianity properly understood. Our Founders had a vested interest in convincing Christians that most notable past Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to John Winthrop erred on tolerance and religious liberty. And though the government ultimately granted (and still grants) free exercise of religion to any religious thought, no matter how extreme, the Founders still endorsed, mainly through their supplications to God, a version of religion that was kinder and gentler than what came before...

The early Presidents did do a lot of “God talk,” and most of it was not even particularly Christian, but spoken in generic or philosophical language, purposefully worded to include religions outside of Christianity. Sometimes though, they did speak of Christianity or revelation and they often used particular adjectives and qualifiers to describe such: “Benevolent”, “benign” and even “liberal” and “enlightened.”
Specific examples are given in the post of this use of moderating language. This interpretation presents an interesting response to those on the religious right who claim that Americas founders were profoundly religious people who regularly brought God into the public sphere. It is true; they did. But they did it to promote a benign and enlightened view of a God who endorsed toleration.

We can hope that more and more Muslims have this kind of moderating experience. And some on the religious right could also use a refresher course.

No comments: