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Feel-good interfaith events may paper over deep differences
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

The lid is off.

In the long shadow of Sept. 11, Americans are rediscovering what most of the world has never forgotten: Religious differences matter.

Last month the Rev. David Benke was suspended from his leadership position in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for taking part in an interfaith prayer service at Yankee Stadium after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

His offense? In a New York Times article July 10, a church official explained that praying with pagans, Muslims, Hindus “was an offense both to God and to all Christians.”

It was bound to happen.

For nearly 11 months now, political leaders have tried to unite America with well-meaning (but glib) statements affirming all religions – and insisting that religion has nothing to do with terrorism. And we’ve had innumerable interfaith prayer services with watered-down “to-whom-it-may-concern” prayers.

All of these (well-intentioned) efforts paper over deep religious differences. In reality, for most Jews, Christians, Muslims and others it does matter what you believe – it matters not only for this life, but for all eternity. And it matters how you pray (and to whom).

Ignoring religious differences doesn’t work. Now comes the inevitable backlash from people angry about “feel-good” attempts at religious unity. And it’s not a pretty sight.

At a gathering of Southern Baptist pastors in June, the Rev. Jerry Vines decided to take the gloves off. He called Islam’s prophet Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile.” And for good measure, he declared that “Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist that’ll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people.”

Is this our choice? Do we have to choose between pretending that we’re all the same or demonizing the other guy?

Let’s hope not.

A third alternative is for Americans to address religious differences honestly and civilly – while simultaneously ensuring that people of all faiths or none are treated fairly in the public square.

We can do this if, and only if, we take the First Amendment seriously. That means first and foremost affirming that religious liberty is an inalienable right for every person.

The First Amendment doesn’t require anyone to “accept” the religions of other people. But it does call us to guard the right of every individual to choose in matters of faith (the right to be wrong, if you want to put it that way).

And we all have a First Amendment right to attempt to persuade others to our view – so long as we don’t use the government to coerce anyone. But we should keep in mind that how we debate is almost as important as what we debate.

Personal attacks, name-calling, ridicule and similar tactics destroy the fabric of our life together as American citizens. Civil debate – the cornerstone of a successful democracy – enables us to engage one another in ways that promote mutual understanding.

What do these First Amendment “ground rules” mean in practice?

There’s nothing wrong with (and something to be gained from) events that celebrate our “unity” in times of national crisis. But let’s not do it in a way that ignores real and important differences. Let the Rev. Benke pray – and let people of other faiths pray, as well. But don’t assume that everyone prays in the same way or prays at all. Why not ask each one to pray in a way that’s authentic within his or her own tradition – and always in the first person? (And don’t forget to include a message from the non-believers.)

There’s also nothing wrong with (and much to be gained from) confronting religious differences that are deep and abiding. After all, we can’t deal with one another honestly if we don’t understand how we differ.

But if everyone adopted the tactics of the Rev. Vines, we’ll only deepen the divisions, ignite hatred, and encourage violence. Surely there’s a way for Christians to explain why they don’t accept Muhammad as a prophet or for Muslims to explain why they don’t view Jesus as divine without resorting to ugly and inflammatory language.

A call for more civility isn’t a call for politically correct speech that offends no one. A robust and open exchange of ideas is a vital part of any successful democracy.

But at a time when religious emotions are running high at home and abroad, we all have a civic obligation to debate our differences with civility and respect.

Why does civility matter? Because a glance at the morning newspaper reminds us that religious divisions are at the heart of the world’s most bitter and violent conflicts.

Ignoring differences doesn’t work. But neither does stirring up anger between religions with hot rhetoric. Only by agreeing to live by the principles of rights and responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment can we continue to live with our deepest differences – without going for the jugular.

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