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How Dare You be Intolerant of My Tolerance for Your Intolerance About Tolerance!

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In one of the comments fields at the science blog Pharyngula, I came across this little gem from somebody styling himself nate-dogg:

I just so happened to see Bill Maher in concert last night. He was talking about the religious right and said something like, “They tell me I don’t respect their religion. Well, I don’t. But I don’t have to. I tolerate it, which is all that’s required of me as an American. It’d be nice if they’d return the favor.”

The comment comes in response to P.Z. Myers’ takedown of this piece about atheists in Raw Story. I don’t have the time or inclination to say anything about it right now. But Maher’s remark gets at something that I really like about America, and points up something that I find really tiresome about the way Amy Sullivan and other theorists from the pews are always berating the left for not “respecting” religion.

About 20 minutes south of where I live is a big Islamic center, right off Route One, near a burrito joint. About 10 minutes north is a Pepto Bismol-colored Hindu temple covered with intricate panels, right across from a high school. Along the way to either one, I pass churches and synagogues. I have yet to see any Buddhist temples, but that’s okay – I saw a couple in the Yellow Pages a little while ago, so I know they’re around.

A secular society makes it possible for all these religions and denominations to go about their business without worrying about what I think – or, for that matter, what anybody else outside their faith thinks. Bill O’Reilly can bloviate all he likes about how “secularists” are wrecking the country, but the fact of the matter is that by leaving government out of religion, America allows all religions to flourish.

I like living in a country where Diwali, Ramadan, Christmas and Hannukah all have room to be celebrated or ignored. That’s a big part of what America is about, and a big part of the reason why Republicans, when they made their unholy alliance with the religious right, forfeited a large measure of their claim to be true patriots. When Jerry Falwell and his ilk screech about Christians being persecuted, what they really mean is that Christians (that is, their relatively small sect within Christianity) can’t call all the shots. Well, they shouldn’t call all the shots – no religion should.

Describing the early pagan phase of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote that “the various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful . . . Toleration produced not only a mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”

That sounds like a good formula for any society to follow – especially ours.

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About Steven Hart

  • YEAH! (screamed loudly)

  • Good article. I’m impressed.

  • Great article!

    Especially this: “Republicans, when they made their unholy alliance with the religious right, forfeited a large measure of their claim to be true patriots.”

    good stuff….hopefully the few republicans with an ounce of sense can help to make things right….err…correct.

  • Steve

    Funny, I saw the author of “American Theocracy” on Tim Russert of MSNBC a few weeks ago. The following week he had Jon Meacham talking about his current book (whose title escapes me at the moment) who basically said he did not agree with the thesis of the above book, based on his research of various presidential speeches from various periods in US history. Apparently, nothing Bush has said in office differs from what other presidents have said concerning religious values in the past. From what I could gather, Meacham is no fundamentalist, either.

  • Did Bill Clinton or George I say they had been chosen by God to lead America? I must have missed those speeches.

  • Steve

    I haven’t read the book myself, it’s called “American Gospel”, here are some comments on it’s contents –

    The American Gospel–literally, the good news about America–is that religion shapes our public life without controlling it. In this vivid book, New York Times bestselling author Jon Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.

    At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.

    Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion,” a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.

    Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.

    “In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”–David McCullough, author of 1776

    “Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life.”–Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

    “An absorbing narrative full of vivid characters and fresh thinking, American Gospel tells how the Founding Fathers–and their successors–struggled with their own religious and political convictions to work out the basic structure for freedom of religion. For me this book was nonstop reading.”–Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, Princeton University, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

    “Jon Meacham is one of our country’s most brilliant thinkers about religion’s impact on American society. In this scintillating and provocative book, Meacham reveals the often-hidden influence of religious belief on the Founding Fathers and on later generations of American citizens and leaders up to our own. Today, as we argue more strenuously than ever about the proper place of religion in our politics and the rest of American life, Meacham’s important book should serve as the touchstone of the debate.”
    –Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors

    “At a time when faith and freedom seem increasingly polarized, American Gospel recovers our vital center–the middle ground where, historically, religion and public life strike a delicate balance. Well researched, well written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature.”–Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History

  • Sounds like an interesting and worthwhile book, but the guy’s got it wrong if he thi8nks Bush isn’t a stanbdout in terms of pitching his message, whether directloy or through the use of culturally loaded terminology, toward the evangelicals.

    Maybe I’ll read it side by side with “American Theocracy” and alternate the chapters.