Interfaith Insight - 2020

Permanent link for "After the election; One thing I know for sure" by Doug Kindschi on November 3, 2020

What will you know when you read this that I don’t know while writing this week’s Insight?  Will we know the results of the election, or will there still be counting going on and perhaps even legal challenges being made? 

Whatever you know, whatever the results, or lack of results, I believe I already know one thing – we will have a lot of work ahead to heal the divisions and polarization that have occupied our public discourse. And religion can help us heal, or can make things worse.

A report recently released by the Brookings Institution in Washington dealt with this challenge.  The 48-page report, “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build,” provides recommendations on such topics as religious freedom, pluralism, civil society partnerships, and the role of faith in foreign and domestic policy.  It was written by two highly respected scholars, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, Melissa Rogers and E. J. Dionne.

Rogers is a visiting professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School and previously served as the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She also served as executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  E.J. Dionne, Jr. is, in addition to his position at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

The report recognized that religion in our public arena “will be a matter of debate, dialogue, and disagreement for as long as we remain a free and democratic republic. Americans have been arguing with each other over the merits of particular faiths, the existence of God, and the meaning of their scriptures from the inception of our nation. They have also engaged each other over the merits of religion itself — whether it is primarily a force for progress or regression, whether it is more unifying or divisive.”

They note that it is fundamental to a free society that there will be legitimate differences of opinion and clashes of interest. These differences, especially over issues of justice, can lead to anger, which can be productive as we struggle with the right course of action to be taken. But they can also be nonproductive as mistrust becomes toxic. Some have described it as a “cold civil war, which implies the possibility of violence.”

Religion is a part of our division even within the same religious traditions and reading the same scriptures. Such divisions contribute to larger numbers of people, especially the young, fleeing from any regular religious identification. Furthermore, religious identities often merge with political identities, making the combination more dangerous. The authors cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that religion “is not to be the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.”

They urge that we “acknowledge that the weaponization of such divisions for political purposes is dangerous to the nation’s long-term stability.” We must also respect the views and commitments of our fellow citizens across religious divides, they assert, and “that their views and concerns are being taken into account, even when their policy preferences are not enacted into law.” The report continues asking us all to recognize and take seriously the many wonderful contributions that religious groups make toward solving problems and building community in our civil society.

The two authors come from different perspectives, one “a Baptist committed to religious freedom and church-state separation. The other is a columnist, an academic, and a Catholic who writes from a broadly liberal or social democratic perspective.” They both acknowledge that they identify with the social justice and civil rights teaching of their respective traditions, and also embrace a commitment to pluralism and openness.

They both believe “that it is possible to find wider agreement on the proper relationship between church and state, and government and faith-based organizations — and to get good public work done in the process.”  While they recognize church-state differences will persist (as they have from the beginning of our nation), “those differences can be narrowed, principled compromises can be forged, and the work of lifting up the least among us can be carried out and celebrated across our lines of division.”

The report sees “a commitment that vindicates the rights of religious and racial minorities, of immigrants and refugees. It stands against the proliferation of hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Black Americans” and other minorities.  It is a commitment, they write, that “honors the equal dignity of every American. It is the only approach that can restore unity to a deeply divided nation.”

Religion can be a cause of societal tensions and strife. But it can also be a constructive force in conflict resolution and play an important role in economic development. Religious institutions have often been vital providers of education and health care. Their feeding programs, homeless shelters, and support at times of crises provide immense social capital in our country as well as throughout the world.

Those of us committed to interfaith efforts have also practiced the skill of dialogue with others whose beliefs are different from our own deeply held commitments, but in such a way that leads to understanding and respect.  Let us take the same attitude to the healing of the political differences facing America.     

As we take our role in healing the polarizations in our nation, let us use our religious commitments to bring resolution to conflict, not to fan the flames of division. Let us be the “conscience of the state,” not seeking the power of the state to carry out our own ideas in ways that deny the religious rights of other citizens. Let it be our mission to heal the divisions, seeking understanding and peace as we go forward. 

E.J. Dionne and Melissa Rogers

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