Steven Waldman

At the end of my post yesterday about the National Day of Prayer, I included a clip from the festivities last year (?) in Tacoma, Washington (see above). I said it was,”lovely, warm and very evangelical.”Rob the Rev commented:

“Steve, you’re kidding right, about that video clip?! What a bunch of nationalistic, fundagelical pietistic, self-rightious crap!”

With respect to loyal/articulate reader “Rob the Rev,” I’d like to unpack my feelings about this video. The video was very Christian-centric and evangelical in style. To me, that’s absolutely great as long as it’s not an official city event. (I couldn’t quite tell whether this was an official event or something that some Christian groups pulled together.)I know some of my readers feel disgusted by evangelicals like this. It’s a culture war, after all, and evangelicals are on the side of jingoism, bigotry, homophobia and nationalism. Right?I can’t agree with that. First of all, non-evangelicals should not do to evangelicals what evangelicals sometimes to do others — stereotype and caricature. Most evangelicals I know are not bigots or hypocrites, or at least no more hypocritical than I am. They volunteer, treat people well, and, though I disagree with them on some issues, they come to their views with as much open-mindedness as most of those with whom I agree (which is to say a mix of genuine intellectual honesty and unconscious, opinions-handed-down-from-dad bias). There certainly are many who don’t fit that description but can we look at that video and be confident that the women with their hands in the air, praying joyfully to the sky, are all self-righteous bigots?Though I’m uncomfortable with the strong connection of religion and nationalism, most of the images in that video were of people praying for the safety of soldiers or firemen or the nation. Those seem like excellent things to pray for. I look at a video like this and feel conflicting emotions: mistrust about the public, exclusivist and semi-official nature of it — and excitement about the love of God they seem to have and the joy they seem to get from prayer. I’m both uncomfortable and envious.Is it my style? No, but those of us who argue for religious pluralism cannot habitually do it with a sneer. That doesn’t mean you stop fighting for what you believe in. That doesn’t mean you stop calling out other faiths for sanctioning immorality. But it does mean that you go into each experience with an attitude that is, well, Christ-ian — assuming the best of people until they prove you wrong. And then do it again. And again.I’m uncomfortable with interfaith dialogue advocates who say we should get along because at the end of the day the faiths have so much in common. They do, but what separates the faiths is profound — so what we really have to do here in America is much harder. We have to come to respect or at least tolerate people with whom we profoundly disagree. That’s real pluralism. It’s very difficult and very American.There’s a reason I always describe Beliefnet as a “multi-faith” rather than “interfaith.” Though I’m thrilled when people of different faiths converse and better understand each other, I don’t believe that people need to abandon their sense that their faith — and their’s alone — is the true path. Pluralism does not mean conflict avoidance. John Adams wrote that “men ought (after they have examined with unbiased judgments every system of religion, and chosen one system, on their own authority, for themselves), to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness.” I’ve often chided conservative Christians who can’t accept the basic tenets of religious pluralism — including the notion that this is not in any official sense, or even in any unofficial sense worth making a big deal about, a “Christian nation.” I wrote a whole book illustrating how the Founders advocated a very different approach.But those who support religious pluralism do their cause harm when they assume the worst in their “opponents.”Well, this certainly was a preachy, self-righteous post! Sorry about that. I’ll get off my soap box now

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