Couple of interesting articles here on the state of religion in the public square today….

In this book review of Gustav Niebuhr’s Beyond Tolerance, WaPo likes the examination of a sort of ‘new’ inter-religious dialogue…

In order to build a more peaceful world, humans need to
move beyond mere tolerance of one another’s differences and engage in
direct, open-minded acts of interfaith dialogue and understanding.
Extending that simple insight over 218 pages is challenge enough. But
doing so without lapsing into either ecumenical banality or religious
favoritism proves too daunting a task, even for a writer of Niebuhr’s
talents.

(Why the ‘either/or’ proposition?)

So Niebuhr discovered that after 9/11, ‘cross-faith communication’ sprang up.

“It is a new activity in the world, and entirely new
phenomenon in our history,” he writes. “It is a social good, a basis
for hope, and a tendency that ought to be nurtured and cultivated.”

Why does Niebuhr call this interfaith dialogue an “entirely new
phenomenon”, when WaPo cites his own book for some historical reference
points…

Niebuhr points to two underappreciated events in October
1965 that dramatically increased pluralism in the country that made
religious freedom famous. One was Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the
Immigration and Naturalization Act, which brought forth tens of
millions of previously blocked migrants from Africa and Asia. Three
weeks later the Catholic Church published “The Declaration on the
Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” as part of its
Vatican II reforms, establishing for the first time that other faiths
should be treated as respectable traditions with a connection to God.
Genuine diversity and tolerance, not for the first time in American
history, reinforced each other.

Except for atheists and agnostics, the piece argues. It suggests Niebuhr was, maybe, narrow-minded.

“I have never personally had much time for people who
want to start up a new religion or for those who would try to blend old
ones in search of an elusive spiritual common denominator,” he declares.

Which reminded me of a piece in First Things the other day on religious diversity and tolerance. Which opens with this:

“Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Harold Bloom in The American Religion
calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating
differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth.

Interesting proposition. And just as the WaPo piece covered the
religious outreach under George W. Bush, First Things moves into
American religious and civil life under the Obama adminstration.

Obama’s public remarks on the freedom of religion and
constitutional law demonstrate little awareness of the significance of
the first freedom of the First Amendment in America’s law and lived
experience. Moreover, after more than three decades of the most
passionate public debate of these matters, Obama declared during the
election that the moral and legal status of the unborn child are
questions “above my pay grade.”

The truly ominous possibility, indeed likelihood, is that Obama does
not see his extreme positions on abortion as being extreme at all. They
are the entrenched orthodoxies of the parties that got him to where he
is.

Which is taking us where?

The response of Christian leaders to the imminent
aggressions will require determined legal talent, especially in First
Amendment law, a sharpening of public arguments, reaching out to those
who do not understand what is at stake, and careful strategizing by
pro-life activists and politicians.

In other words, more engagement of morally informed voices in the democratic process.

In the first place and in the long term, however, the
need is for the courage to recover a biblical and historical
understanding of what it means to say “Let the Church be the Church.”
The Church is not an association of individuals sharing the experience
of religion as what they do with the solitude. The Church is not in the
consumption business, peddling the products that satisfy one’s
self-defined spiritual needs.

It is “a community of obligation” to the truth. This is how the
Church has always understood itself in every era, Neuhaus contends.

It was the understanding of Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God
that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the
world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would
be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has
been understood that her message and mission are based on public
events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.

It’s time to realize the tendency to capitulate to the forces of
political correctness. Europe is still suffering the ravages of the
Enlightenment.

In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue.
The freedom of religion was largely purchased at the price of agreeing
to the public irrelevance of religion…

Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with
respect to the truths that matter most, divorcing fact from value,
knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, needs to be challenged,
and challenged boldly.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....