Recent events have called into question just how much progress humankind has made. The April 15, 2013, bombing in Boston, Massachusetts, disrupted more than just a marathon; it caused several fatalities, including the death of a child, and maimed and injured more than 100 others. Along with the immediate task of coping with yet another attack on American soil, we have had to confront the grave concern of humankind’s persistent propensity for violence.
At the time of this writing, the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing have been two Chechen brothers, one of whom chose death over surrender when confronted by law- enforcement authorities. The people of Chechnya have suffered a history marred by bloodshed, even before it found itself within the Soviet sphere. A yearning for independence arose early on, first with secular leaders, then continuing with those increasingly and militantly Islamist, whose zealous faith embraced terrorist tactics. In the weeks following the April 2013 bombing, Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, reportedly engaged in a finger wag, reminding the United States that disruptions in Chechnya were more akin to terrorism than an Arab Spring.
Americans and Chechens are not the only ones familiar with suffering. For example, before the Boston bombing there was the shooting of 77 Norwegians by a mentally disturbed xenophobe, who was subsequently caught, found guilty, and sentenced to 21 years in prison. However one interprets the conflict in Chechnya, the shootings in Norway, or the events of the Boston Marathon bombing, they are reminders of how few places on earth are immune to violence, how the actions of a few can be devastatingly lethal to many, and how intractable is the all-too-human penchant for hate. The fact that those responsible for the bombing may have been influenced in part by a perverse piety only fuels fears of religion.
History of Religious Intolerance
In a certain sense religious intolerance is not new to human history. The use of force and the practice of faith have long been closely, if disturbingly, associated; the cynical might say they are inextricably intertwined. While social scientists have rightly taught us that a correlation is not the same thing as causation, the fact that violence and religion have often been co-occurring conditions is nonetheless troubling. History shows that the sword and Sacred Scriptures have often been wielded by the same pair of hands—manifesting in and even predating the Protestant-Catholic wars in Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and Constantine’s Christendom.1
The question of why religious beliefs motivate or abide violence is not readily answerable—and religious intolerance in our own time is resistant to quick fixes. Whether addressed by scholars or governmental institutions, ending violence has never been easy.2
A Trajectory of Peace
There was a time after the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Western cultures grew increasingly tolerant and accepting of difference—whether religious, racial, or cultural. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, for example, England made the decision to end the back-and-forth persecution of Protestants or Catholics in their midst. Laws concerning religious heresy were revisited, the active hunting of dissenters as under her sister Mary’s reign was curbed, and while Parliament passed an Act of Uniformity, compelling attendance at Church of England services, provisions were made for so-called recusants. Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was a constant at services, but imposing the death penalty on account of one’s religion declined sharply. Increasingly, to be executed for treason the prosecution had to prove more than mere religious nonconformance.
The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts were the fruit of misogynistic sentiment, the inheritance of religious superstition, and a shameful legacy of injustice. And yet ironically they evidenced a growing awareness that process and procedure could not be dispensed with, that somehow the rule of law applied even in such situations in which society appeared under attack. At the time, Puritan leaders relied upon passages in the Bible authorizing the death penalty for witches (Exodus 22:18). Executions could not be summarily carried out against the accused; a trial had to be held.
With the passage of years, and after the American Revolution, the nascent United States adopted a written Constitution that disallowed the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law and forbade any religious tests for federal governmental office. As amended, it guaranteed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In ensuing Supreme Court cases, the American people fleshed out what religious liberty meant. Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” words from his 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, became a dynamic metaphor that proved as protean in interpretation as it was popular in application. It served as a lens through which to delineate the proper spheres of governmental administration and religious conviction.
In due time, the international community took notice, most prominently with the United Nations endorsing religious freedom. In 1948 the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights responded to the heartrending World War II experience, expressly safeguarding religious freedom in three articles.3
The American precedent inspired the U.N. to take this step. And the American president Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) ensured that his wife, Eleanor, served on the committee that drafted the declaration. Supporters saw in this evidence of FDR’s commitment to religious tolerance; skeptics saw this as a way to blunt criticism of his belated intervention against Hitler.
Whatever the reason, the result was a favorable forecast of things to come, such as the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, affirming that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. European courts have since held such freedom applicable to those professing no religious beliefs at all.
The French have a saying—De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste there is no dispute)—that is apropos of the current contemporary situation in which religion is construed as purely subjective and entirely a matter of taste, over which there can be no legitimate disputing. While some welcome this as a good thing (leading to fewer disputes), others worry about a subtle undermining of religion (inviting a backlash). Whether to laud or lament the contemporary attitude toward religion depends on where you think such attitudes ultimately lead.
One Step Forward; Two Steps Back
World War II made clear the resurgence of religious intolerance. And one cannot help wondering whether an ever-increasing tolerance is the inevitable trend of history or just wishful thinking. Might peace be a “brief shining moment,” a momentary aberration, in an otherwise harrowing history of humankind, which, as Thomas Hobbes put it, is “nasty, brutish, and short”?
Human rights organizations have increasingly reported instances of religious persecution, growing in both number and ferocity. Since 2008 one rights watch group reported that even governments have reverted to uneven treatment of religious groups:
“Adherents of religions deemed by governments to be nontraditional in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Evangelical Protestants, minority Orthodox Christians, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were among those targeted for violence, sometimes in the context of government restrictions on religious activities and official rhetoric that vilifies such groups.”4
Even if we determine that the recent uptick in religious violence is momentary, how long will this moment last? What can we do to promote peace? Could it be that a religious second law of thermodynamics of sorts is at work, predicting an inevitable decay of societal tolerance? The theology of not a few religions concedes tomorrow’s forecast of rain.
Diagnosis and Cure
Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher, historian, and legal scholar with the University of Chicago, has wrestled with questions of religious freedom. Her books—including The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (2007) andLiberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (2008)—received critical acclaim.
Her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, is a timely diagnosis and welcome prescription. A summoning call to truly “know yourself, so that you can move outside of yourself, serve justice, and promote peace,” it is learned, lucid, and hopeful.
Nussbaum describes our time as anxious and suspicious, one punctuated by narcissistic but understandable fear, requiring a genuine return to “first principles.” An effective response to religious hatred requires impartiality, self-examination, and respect for conscience. Overcoming what she dubs the “politics of fear” is essential if we are to preserve a civil society.
Dispassionate and impartial, but neither disinterested nor indifferent, Nussbaum shares that she became Jewish later in life and proudly underwent an “adult bat mitzvah in August 2008.” Her rabbi “believed in introspection,” taught that we “share a world with others,” and worked for “the good of others.” His eyes “sparkled” with the “variegated colors of affection.”
Her analysis benefits from a genuine appreciation for faith, community, and country, including her own, the United States of America. This is not a jingoism that whitewashes our own collective past to sharpen the contrast with other countries. Nor is this a patriotic ode to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” She asks not how to make the world more like America but rather how Americans can help make the world a more peaceful place for all.
In order to be true to “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address, we must first admit and take responsibility for America’s past “anti-Catholicism and ‘nativism,’ anti-Semitism, and a host of other prejudices against ‘strange’ minorities,” present in but a stain upon “all Western societies.” Confession is the initial step toward reconciliation.
Tolerance’s Test Tube
America is an experiment in forming an essential unity out of kaleidoscopic diversity. Whether it is a successful experiment remains to be answered.
In the “land of the free,” Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the world. Arriving at Ellis Island beneath the blazing torch of the Statue of Liberty, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” found a life better than the one left behind. While we have cause to “be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe,” we have genuine reasons for hope.
Nussbaum’s New Religious Intolerance draws on history, philosophy, literature, law, and human psychology in addressing the roots of and solution to religious intolerance. She alludes to a diverse array of thinkers and doers, books and concepts, and historical and contemporary events, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, France’s anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair, John Rawls’A Theory of Justice, the ideas of John Locke and Roger Williams, and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Technical expressions, such as “availability heuristic” and “reputational cascade,” actually help her tell her story.
She is interested in neither a paltry permissiveness nor a grudging forbearance toward those who are different. She champions the continuing recognition that the right not to be discriminated against is an inherent, not conferred, right. And for this proposition she cites none other than founder George Washington, whose 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation insisted that no more is toleration spoken of, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people.” Religious liberty is among the “unalienable Rights” with which peoples are “endowed by their Creator.” “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” cannot cohabit with a tyrannical government.
John Locke’s ideas were in the air during the Revolutionary Period in early American history, inspiring the Declaration of Independence. His theories laid the foundation for a government structure whereby a secular state reigned without lording it over churches. However groundbreaking Lockean ideas were for the time, they still assumed a Christian world. Roger Williams went a step further, extending religious freedom to non-Christians and “even nonbelievers, whom Williams refers to as ‘anti-Christians.’” Nussbaum applauds this maturing of religious liberty, without which society could not address the more “subtle forms of discrimination,” otherwise imperceptible to the majority.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise)is an eighteenth-century parable about a father and his sons who, each believing himself the bearer of a special ring, thereby lived in complete harmony. Such is Lessing’s and Nussbaum’s fervent hope for humanity.
The Mosque and September 11
If a ring can represent religious tolerance, what can (should) a mosque represent? Returning to more recent (post September 11m) developments, Nussbaum highlights the Muslim community’s efforts to build a mosque not far from the fallen Twin Towers in Manhattan. Most New Yorkers, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Jewish journalist Thomas Freidman, are supportive. But there are opponents, who cannot disentangle violent Islam from its peaceful practice by millions of Muslims around the globe.
Naysayers deem it ill-mannered to have a mosque within “striking distance” of the memorial to all those who died on September 11, 2001. For them, ground zero is a sacred spot, a consecrated area, holy ground. (Yet in that same general location are reportedly risqué adult establishments—pole dancers being apparently less vulgar than prayers to Allah.)
Allowing such a house of worship in Manhattan is, in Nussbaum’s spot-on estimation, fully in keeping with the best of American traditions. We embrace diverse peoples and recognize that being an American has nothing to do with skin color and has everything to do with, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phrase “the content of their character.” Americans—whatever our accent, ethnicity, or faith—share a deep commitment to human rights. Our core beliefs eschew the temptation to selfishness and avoid asserting a “privileged case” for ourselves. America is big enough to welcome all who seek peace, civic harmony, and freedom from intolerance.
1 In fact, scholars suggest that differences over faith may in part have motivated the genocidal reconquest of the Promised Land by Hebrew slaves returning from Egyptian bondage. Perhaps religious intolerance predates all three monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—and written history itself.
2 Even Jesus Christ, when confronted by a religious law imposing execution, chose not to advocate abolition of the death penalty in cases of adultery. Instead, Jesus resorted to urging only those without sin to carry out the sentence—a clever though less-than-courageous solution. This only goes to show how daunting it is to change hearts and minds long-conditioned by cultural practices and habituated by revered traditions.
3 For example: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (article 18). Freedom of religion is also safeguarded in articles 2 and 16.
Author: David A. Pendleton
David A. Pendleton has served as a schoolteacher, college instructor, trial lawyer elected state legislator, and policy advisor to a state governor, and now adjudicates workers' compensation appeals in Honolulu, Hawaii.