Last semester we hosted a speaker, Gustav Niebuhr, who argued that we should strive for something greater than religious tolerance. Tolerance is far better than intolerance, of course, but it implies little more than the begrudging acceptance of someone else’s existence. In the words of Niebuhr’s title, we must go “beyond tolerance” to genuine understanding and mutual support in a pluralistic society.
In reaction to the lecture, some audience members questioned Niebuhr’s starting point. Assuming religious tolerance as a recognized virtue, he was trying to extend it in the direction of greater mutuality. For some in the audience, however, it seemed that even the language of tolerance was asking too much. Based on the perceived threat of another religion or the perceived superiority of their own, they were not convinced they should even be trying to coexist. One audience member worried that a growing non-Christian population would threaten American democracy. Another argued that one could love people of other faiths while being intolerant of their ideas and rejecting their influence in the public sphere.
Fundamentalist fear is almost always linked to misinformation and propaganda. In this case, some of that misinformation came from an alarmist article, forwarded to me after the event, warning about the encroachment of sharia law in American courts. This unfounded fear has also shown up in Republican presidential debates, so it is worth addressing.
The article’s author cites two court cases, distorting both. For a more complete assessment of the first, Hosain v. Malik, see http://www.afshinpishevarlaw.com/lawyer-attorney-1124095.html. The second, a New Jersey ruling that received extensive press, was seen as wrongly decided, and then overturned, ultimately demonstrates the success of our legal system and the supremacy of U.S. constitutional law, not the encroachment of sharia. Further, by arguing for a ban on the influence of all foreign laws, this author and others misunderstand the nature of international law and American jurisprudence. For more on this topic, see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/gop-hopefuls-trafficked-in-crackpot-sharia-panic-with-one-exception-romney/2011/03/04/AGHFXZUH_blog.html ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/20/anti-sharia-law-a-solutio_n_864389.html ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/qasim-rashid/shariah-law-the-five-things-every-non-muslim_b_1068569.html?ref=islam. I particularly like this assessment by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League: http://sharialaws.blogspot.com/2011/08/op-ed-by-foxman-shout-down-sharia-myth.html, and this one from the ACLU: http://www.aclu.org/blog/religion-belief/debunking-mythical-sharia-threat-our-judicial-system.
Remarkably, some people who argue against reference to sharia law are the same ones who argued for the explicit influence of the Ten Commandments in American courtrooms. They do not see the inconsistency, because they do not understand the roles of religious institutions and government in a pluralistic society. They have not learned the repeated lessons of history, that marriages between religion and government leave no widows. We do not want to repeat the Constantinian mistake of accepting or encouraging government favors toward one faith, coupled with the suppression of others. When the Roman empire fell, together with its established Christian religion, Augustine wrote City of God to defend the continuing viability of the church. When the liberal churches aligned with national political powers in WWI, with leading theologians defending their respective country’s decisions, the churches in Europe barely survived the devastation. We who hope to preserve the integrity of our faith should argue for the kind of structural pluralism Stephen Monsma describes in Positive Neutrality. It recognizes the legitimate, but limited authority of multiple spheres of authority (government, family, church, business, etc.). It encourages the government to be positive toward people of faith, but neutral, not favoring any. We should favor such a pluralistic system because it better honors the dignity of all people, but also because it is better for our own survival.
People of faith need to understand: a political system that favors your group over another will one day favor another group over you. You really don’t want that.
Beyond all that, we need to do what Niebuhr advocated in his lecture. We need to know people of other faiths personally. We need to know them well enough to ask questions about what they believe, about what they do. We need to listen to them—really listen—and we need to be open to the possibility that we have misunderstood some things. We need to filter our concerns through the grid of real people. We need to not be afraid.