Increasing religious diversity will test commitment to first principles

Sunday, September 10, 2000

When religion makes headlines in America, it’s often bad news. A
new lawsuit or shouting match over such perennial flashpoints as school prayer,
creation vs. evolution or zoning regulations has torn apart yet another

But here’s the good news: If suing or shouting over religious
differences is all that we do, we’re a very fortunate nation.

With the tragic exception of the abortion conflict, our wars of words
rarely turn violent. Thanks in large measure to the religious-liberty
principles of the First Amendment, citizens of the United States are able to
negotiate religious differences without going for the jugular.

By contrast, historic and seemingly implacable divisions rooted in
religion cause rivers of blood to flow throughout the world, from India and Sri
Lanka to Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

Before we congratulate ourselves too much, however, we should heed the
warning signs in a public square that is becoming increasingly diverse and
crowded. As our religious differences multiply, our ability to live together
will be tested as never before in our history.

Consider the growing number of conflicts that erupt when various
religious communities attempt to build houses of worship in places where people
of other faiths have long dominated the neighborhood.

Resistance to the “other” takes many forms. A few years
ago, longtime residents opposed a new Buddhist temple in a blue-collar town in
Indiana. A more recent case involved a Mormon temple in a Boston suburb.
Earlier this year, an evangelical Protestant group had to fight to build a
church in an urban strip mall. Last year, an orthodox Jewish congregation was
blocked from using a home in a California suburb for Saturday prayer.

An especially telling example is a current case involving an attempt
to locate a mosque in a town south of Chicago. It all began when a community of
Muslims contracted to buy a former church in order to build a new mosque and
Islamic center.

When the city council and local citizens learned of the sale, many
opposed it based on thinly veiled prejudice and fear. The council even offered
the Muslims $200,000 to walk away from the deal. The issue remains unresolved,
and the city faces a multi-million-dollar discrimination lawsuit.

More often than not, such incidents aren’t simple cases of hate
or bigotry. They’re usually driven by fear of the unknown or shaped by
stereotypic images learned from the media.

That’s why it’s essential that the American media do a
better job of accurately and fully reporting on the variety of religious life
in our nation. Although coverage of religion has improved in the past decade,
much of it remains superficial — especially in the broadcast media.

This is also why schools must do a better job of including study about
religions in the curriculum. If students are to be prepared for citizenship in
a religiously diverse society, they must know something about the religious
beliefs and practices of their neighbors.

The First Amendment doesn’t require us to accept or endorse a
religion or worldview different from our own. But it does call us to uphold the
rights of others, including those with whom we deeply disagree. 

First, however, it helps to know who the “others” are.
Yes, they are Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon, evangelical Protestant, Jewish and so
forth. And we should know what that means in each case.

But “they” are also “we” —
“we” as in “We the People of the United States of
America.” It’s crucial that we know that too.

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