In this craziest of presidential primary seasons, I have not mentioned the Republican candidate with the “best plumage,” the colorful description offered by Marilynne Robinson. I have found his words so offensive, his narcissism so egregious, and his attitude toward “others” so despicable. I have not wanted to draw further attention to this headline-grabbing vortex, so he shall remain nameless. (It is unlikely that he could fire a seminary president, anyway.) Nonetheless, I cannot keep silent about his uncontrolled depiction of the world’s fastest growing religion or about his mocking use of Christianity for political gain.
The statement “Islam hates us” during CNN’s recent debate is one more example of his pattern of reckless speech; it only serves to foment alienation for American Muslims and recruitment opportunity for radical Islamic groups. We must see this statement for what it is: a dangerous pandering to the most exclusivist understandings of Christianity. It also stokes fear in the U.S. Jewish community, given the close ties with Israel.
As a Baptist, I get very nervous when the political realm speaks too much about religion. It is the role of the state to create a context where religious pluralism can flourish; it is not the role of the state to impose or favor one religion over another. As Rowan Williams contends in Faith in the Public Square, the state serves as “mediator and broker whose job is to balance and manage real differences.” Nor it is the role of religion to commandeer the state for its own purposes, and the cynical use of Christianity (a.k.a civil religion?) to further candidates’ prospects demeans responsible faith.
Respect for the religion of others is more than simply tolerating religious difference; rather, it draws from the common affirmation of the dignity of humans and their right to religious liberty. It is a critical task of our time to learn from adherents of other ways of faith. The last thing a politician needs to do is denigrate another religion en masse. Every faith tradition has its radical fringe, and we ought to know better than to measure the whole by those who distort its essential teaching.
I had a conversation recently with a treasured friend in Thailand about whether there is a state religion in his country. He noted that there were stringent efforts to inscribe Buddhism as the state religion in the constitution, but the royal family would not allow it. It seems that the family’s positive acquaintance with Christian missionaries over the years would not allow this legislation to go forward. As a committed Christian leader, he observed that this approach allowed the kind of healthy competition between religions that offered real choice.
While traveling to Southeast Asia, I have been working my way through Miroslav Volf’s new book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. Dense and carefully argued, the thesis is that the great world religions are a force for good as they prompt human reach for and response to the transcendent. For these religious pursuits to remain a constructive social force, adherents will have to embrace a distinction between religion and rule; i.e., religion and politics are two “distinct, though intersecting, cultural territories.”
As I head to Myanmar during this time of unprecedented political transition, I am eager to learn how the new government will deal with the ongoing contraction of religious liberty for Muslims and Christians. Outsiders and cautious insiders have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi for her tepid reaction to the brutal treatment of Muslims by radicalized Buddhist leaders. And Christians are always on the margin, too, as they are not members of the “favored religion.” Baptist churches in the United States have witnessed and welcomed the tidal wave of refugees, our spiritual kin. Observers on the ground are hopeful that this courageous leader was wisely biding her time until the election was completed and the new leadership comes to power, which will occur in early April.
A Christian friend in Myanmar gives this perspective:
It is an exciting moment in our history. For many of us, all these things are new in life. … We do hope and pray that things would turn toward the common good of our people in Myanmar and finally peace and justice would prevail.
March 13th was Global Day of Prayer for Burma, and Christians here welcome spiritual support. I encourage you to sustain this praying, especially in this delicate time.
When a religion is an instrument of hate, it has abdicated its moral voice. At the heart of faith traditions is love of God and love of neighbor. We can offer this as a common word, even as we seek to preserve the religious liberty of those who do not share our Christian faith. This will be the best witness of all, demonstrating the remarkable dignity Jesus accords all people.