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Friday, June 27, 2008

What Are the Limits of Religious Tolerance?

A reader left a comment that got me pondering the limits of freedom and religious tolerance. Here is what Coleen McMains wrote as a response to my original post, which was about the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors decision to renew the lease of the controversial Islamic Saudi academy:
I find your blog disturbing. Overall, for the fact that you are all right with supporting the rights for innocent children to be taught, in their textbooks, in OUR schools, that WE are infidels, Christian's and Jews are "apes and pigs" (it says this on the Koran) and that homosexuals should be thrown from cliffs (also in the Koran). Where were our Americans...when THESE people hijacked four airliners and killed thousands of our citizens on September 11, 2001? Do you remember that day? Were you proclaiming their first amendment rights and proclaiming their need for religious freedom on that day? It is people, like yourself, that are so bound up in these people having their "rights" and "religious freedoms" that will be the downfall of our country.
First of all, let me assure Ms. McMains that I indeed remember that day well. I was fleeing from an office right near the White House, considered at the time to be a likely target in an attack on the U.S. I spent hours in traffic evacuating the Washington, DC while frantic family and friends wondered about my whereabouts. I had – and still have – friends who work at the Pentagon. I was frantic about them. I also had relatives in lower Manhattan, not far from the Twin Towers. And New York City is my hometown. To say the least, I had many connections to both areas affected by that attack. It’s always dangerous to make easy assumptions when in high dudgeon, attacking somebody. I’ve done it myself and been embarrassed. But that’s another story.

What troubles me most, however, are how many other unquestioned assumptions Ms. McMains makes in this comment.

First is the notion that all Muslims are extremists. The other is that all Muslims take every word of the Koran literally and interpret it narrowly and so are actively committed to throwing every homosexual off a cliff and killing every infidel who doesn’t share their religious beliefs.

Although I disagree with Ms. McMains - I’ll get into the reasons in a few minutes - I think she is sincere in her belief that there are real dangers lurking out there because of the threat of radical Islam. I even agree that the way Islam is practiced by groups like the Taliban, the Wahabbists, Salafis and al Qaeda is dangerous.

It’s also true, I think, that America needs to regain control of its too porous borders to keep terrorists from those groups from entering our country. It’s important to acknowledge that there are two separate issues in our immigration problems. One is dealing humanely with the many illegal immigrants who live and work in our country, contributing to our economy and conducting themselves as law abiding residents. Their only crime was entering America illegally. But once here, they have acted in a productive and respectful manner. Those people deserve a pathway to citizenship, which involves paying fines, going to the back of the line, and fulfilling certain obligations. But they do not deserve to be booted out and have their lives and their families’ lives disrupted.

But the other issue is that we have to stop the flow of new illegal immigrants into the nation, especially those who might present a security threat. That is the more serious problem and deserves immediate attention. I happen to agree with Ms. McMains and other critics that America is under no obligation to open its borders to, and welcome in, followers of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar.

On the other hand, Ms. McMains unexamined idea that religious tolerance is dangerous is as disturbing to me as my support for First Amendment rights is disturbing to her.

As I quoted in my original blog diary, John Whitehead, from the Rutherford Institute, while speaking in defense of the Saudi Islamic Academy, said that religions have a history of teaching intolerant things, which is why they need the extra protection of the Constitution.

That’s objectively true.

A somewhat humorous piece has made its way around the Internet, and even wound up as a speech by President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing. In it a religious person expresses his dilemma at having to follow certain sections of the Old Testament. Here are a few examples:
• I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

• Lev. 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

• I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

• A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
In addition, the Bible seems to encourage, even command, genocide. Not only were the ancient Israelites, returning from bondage in Egypt, given the land of Canaan, but they were exhorted by God to kill all the original Canaanite inhabitants. Slackers that they were, when they failed to be as thorough as God commanded them to be, they were roundly condemned for it. In fact, when King Saul falls out of favor with God, the prophet Samuel tells him it is because he disobeyed God’s direct command to kill all the Canaanites – every man, woman and child – who were polluting the land.

Here are just a few examples of relevant passages:
NKJ Deu 7:1 “When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, 2 “and when he LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.

NKJ Deu 20:16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 “but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you,

NKJ 1Sa 15:1 Samuel also said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD. 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. 3 ‘Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”
Now modern Christians, even fairly conservative ones, will quickly point out that they actually don’t do this anymore. But those Biblical passages about how to treat “infidels” were used to justify the terrible treatment that Native Americans received from white settlers, including theft of their land, forced conversions, confinement on reservations, and massacres.

And even today, you can find fundamentalists Christian groups, such as this one, which unapologetically support the command to genocide simply because it is in the Bible.
The Justification of God’s Call to Holy War

In light of the context and nature of holy war, God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites may be justified under the following biblical principles: First of all, the Canaanites had known about Yahweh’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel for many years (Josh 2:10, 11); yet, with the exception of Rahab (Josh 2:12, 13), they did not repent. Therefore, the Canaanites stood under the just condemnation of God (Rom 1:18-2:16) (Greene, 1929:220). Secondly, the Bible teaches (as does the light of nature) the principle of corporate solidarity, whereby the actions of an individual may affect the larger community for good or evil (Josh 7; Rom 5:12-21). Thirdly, God’s love for his people and desire to maintain their purity required the preventative excision of that which would inevitably corrupt their devotion to the true religion (Deut 20:16-18). As Wright points out, “divine love is a two-edged sword” (1969:130-31). Like a surgeon, God removed the cancerous growth of Canaanite depravity in order to promote the longevity of his people. Finally, we must remember that Israel’s holy war against Canaan is a redemptive-historical type of spiritual and eschatological warfare (cf. Eph 6:10-18; Heb 4:1-11; Rev 19:11-21) (Holloway, 1998:57). Eschatological judgment intruded into human history in a unique way, which only finds its equal at Calvary (Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13) and at the Second Coming (Rev. 6:16; 14:10).
Tell me, what is the real difference between this passage and the calls for jihad from radical Muslims?

The only thing that makes the Muslim claim reprehensible and the Judeo Christian claim permissible is which religious tradition you believe is the true faith. If you do a mind exercise and assume that Allah is the true God and that the Koran is the truthful revelation, then the command to exterminate infidels becomes as acceptable as Jehovah’s command to liquidate all the Canaanites.

Of course, when I go into Catholic or Methodist churches, I don’t hear exhortations to genocide. In fact, all of us would be more likely to hear pleas for peace. The same would be true if we went into any modern synagogue or temple. Members of all those faiths have somehow moved beyond the belief that they are commanded to kill infidels. The same is true for most Muslims. The groups that hold a literalist view are a minority of Muslims. Just as they are a minority of Christians or Jews.

But if you start closing down schools for teaching religion, whose school follows the Saudi academy?

According to this article, Christian religious schools and homeschoolers often use textbooks that show little tolerance for non Christians or even for Christians who aren’t fundamentalists. Those textbooks are intolerant of Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even Catholics.
To say that Christian fundamentalist textbooks portray Roman Catholicism and non-Western religions in a negative way is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude. All the texts are imbued with an arrogance and hostility toward non-Western religions that is truly breathtaking

This animus toward other religions is intimately tied to the theological roots of fundamentalist Christian perspectives. As researchers Gaddy, Hall, and Maranzo have noted, because Christian fundamentalists believe that truth can only be found in “God's infallible, literal Word revealed in the Bible, religious tolerance toward others with different values and different world views must be rejected.” 1

In looking at the treatment of religion, I again studied three major textbook publishers for fundamentalist Christian schools and home-schoolers: A Beka Press, Bob Jones University Press, and School of Tomorrow/Accelerated Christian Education. I drew on a wider range of the textbooks and materials than in my discussion of politics and included substantially more material from world history and geography textbooks and, in some instances, from English literature texts.
So, do we close them down and deny parents the right to home school too?

It goes back to my original contention that if you start violating the First Amendment rights of one group, then none of us are safe.

It’s fair to debate the limits of tolerance. How much intolerance can a free society allow and still remain open and democratic? How does one discourage religious bigotry without violating the First Amendment rights that protect us all?

Indeed, the anti-religious prescriptions of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to shut down all religious teaching are as dangerous as any other extremist solution. So while I am sympathetic to Ms. McMains’ alarm, I don’t think there are easy answers. I believe we will always struggle with the tension between protecting religious liberty for all versus shutting down the extremism that threatens those liberties we hold so dear in a democratic society.

And don’t think this is a new problem. The dilemma was put starkly by Benjamin Franklin: “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.”


proudvadem said...

Excellent post.
It's so funny that people jump to conclusions about the Koran. These are the same people who skip the "Red Letters" in the bible and forget passages such as Matthew 25.

She may find your blog "disturbing" but I find it right on point.

hoobie said...

I do not remember Dawkins or Harris calling to shut down all religious teaching in thie writings. Can you point me in the right direction? Maybe I don't have that book.

MB said...

Yeah, that's all nice, but can you in fact clarify whether or not it's okay to enslave Canadians? I'm meeting one for drinks tomorrow night, and I need to know whether to bring a collar and chains or not. Kthnx.

spotter said...

And from today's broadcast:

Appeasement Never Works
Friday, June 27, 2008 Psychologists Dr. James Dobson and Dr. Bill Maier illustrate how pacifying aggressive behavior only reinforces it!

Funny, that's not in my New Testament.

And who knew Bill Maher was hooked up with Dr. James Dobson? Oh, different guy, never mind.

The Oath said...

Good job quoting the Old Testament! Now find one modern church that advocates wiping out the Amelakites. Ohhh....there's none around....why? Because Christ changed all of that. That's what your missing sister and that's what is different about Islam.

Conspicuously absent from your comparison is the Sermon on the Mount. Study to shew thyself approved...

Hokie Guru said...

I've made the big time... NLS has linked to one of my posts:

:-) :-)

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

First, let me answer MB, who obviously could face a serious social crisis with those Canadian friends - hope I'm in time :)

I would leave the collar and chains home unless your friends are somewhat adventureous or kinky. Slavery, alas, is frowned upon in most of the civilized world today.

Hoobie, I don't know the exact passages but Sam Harris, particularly, has accused religious moderates of enabling extremists simply because the moderates also believe in God and organized religion, which he considers dangerous. None of the atheists writers I mentioned have called overtly for outlawing religious practice but they come very close to that line in their writings, calling religious belief dangerous and dysfunctional in and of itself.

And Oath, my point wasn't that modern practitioners of Christianity or Judaism believe in genocide or slavery (which even St. Paul accepted as legitimate when he talked Onesimus, a runaway slave, into returning to his master), but that both Christians and Jews have evolved. You are right that there are commandments, sermons, and parables in the Bible - both Old and New Testament - that command mercy, kindness and love.

My point is that the same is true for the Koran. You can always pull out some blood thirsty passage in an ancient scripture to prove that somebody else's faith tradition is inferior to your own. But if you take the Koran as a whole, just as if you take our Holy Scripture as a whole, you will see that more often people are enjoined to love their neighbor and walk humbly with their God. That is true in most of the world's religions.

The main thing I was trying to show is that no one religion is evil but that all of them contain a side that could be misused and hijacked.

Oh and Hokie Guru - congrats on making the big time :)

Hokie Guru said...

I do refer to your blog in my post... I'm not sure if you have seen it...

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I have indeed seen it and I should have thanked you. I apologize for my bad manners.

I've been trying to catch up after being away for a week so I'm behind in a lot of things I should do.

Thank you again for all the kind things you said.

Anonymous said...


You state: "Tell me, what is the real difference between this passage and the calls for jihad from radical Muslims?"

There is actually an easy answer to that question. The one is speaking regarding a command given to a specific people in a specific situation for a specific purpose at a specific time that is in the past. The other is given as a current command.

The cries to Jihad and to kill the infidel are not a report of what they may have been told to do at some point in the past, but are cries that can legitimately be interpreted as active for the devout Muslim.

Thus, a significant difference exists between the two.

Anonymous said...


That's patently false. Most of the references to jihad in the Koran are either references to historical instances in the Middle East or to the use of the word "jihad" as in "striving to know and serve Allah" in a non-violent manner. So where's the difference? It's the same as in the Bible.

Hokie Guru said...

Cross-Posted at NLS:

State Del. David B. Albo argues it is not the highly educated who have turned Fairfax blue. "My bet is that it's those who are on food stamps and government services who tend to be more Democratic," he said.

Is Dave Albo tone deaf? Is it possible that he is that dumb? He should be target #1 for the Virginia Democrats House of Delegates strategy for 2008.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Yeah, Hokie Guru, Albo is pretty dumb. I saw that and my jaw dropped open.

But please stick to the topic of this post. Thanks.

Coleen McMains said...

Karen, I have to say that even though I disagree with you on some aspects, I enjoyed reading your response and I learned something new. You truly have a brilliant mind and are very knowledgeable. Thanks for responding and getting people talking. Keep up the great work :)

Sincerely, Coleen

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Wow, thank you so much Coleen. I do have to confess that I'm not that brilliant or knowledgeable. I'm good at Googling :)