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A union of The Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia

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Religious Pluralism 

The Case for Religious Pluralism 
in a Secular State

by Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst


We in the West have learned that religious passions can cause so much disruption in political life that their role needs to be limited. Germany did this after the Wars of Religion in 1648; England after Puritanism and Restoration in 1688; the U.S. in the First Amendment in 1791. It has now become a commonplace to say that, while there should be a separation between religious and political institutions, this does not mean a separation of religion and politics, since religious people and institutions can seek a just society for good religious reasons.

Not everyone grasps this point, however, and we often find the whipping up of religious passions over political issues, often through the formation of explicitly religious parties. In recent decades, so-called Hindu fundamentalism has threatened the pluralistic ethos enshrined in the Indian constitution, and Islamic fundamentalism has destabilized a number of states in the Islamic world. Israeli fundamentalists, joined by fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., have tried, with some success, to extend the boundaries of Israel to the so-called biblical boundaries (stated in widely varying ways in the Bible itself), denied that there are any "occupied territories," and resisted any exchange of land for peace.

Fundamentalisms have been examined comparatively in a wide-ranging project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. You would need a wheelbarrow to carry the five huge volumes, and you are not expected to go out and buy it; but you should know about it, and maybe you will want to refer knowingly to it. It's The Fundamentalism Project, edited by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 1991-1995). The multiple authors recognize that fundamentalism in the strict sense applies to a movement in the U.S. during the early twentieth century. Taking its salient characteristics and studying analogous phenomena in other religious traditions, they construct an "ideal type," using it heuristically and acknowledging the many differences. They tend to find that fundamentalisms are occasioned by industrial civilization and deal with its anxieties by seeking a return to an older, simpler time, even as they make use of modern media of communication and exploit to the full the freedoms that are unique to modern civilization.

Fundamentalism or zealotry need not take overt political forms; it is all the more effective when it does not. In the U.S., James Davison Hunter has taught us to speak of "culture wars" in two books, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books, 1991), Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War (Free Press, 1994). Culture wars, he suggests, have an intrinsic tendency toward dualistic thinking: they are based in competing moral visions, such that those who disagree are placed beyond the bounds of legitimacy. Therefore there is an urge to "force political solutions" rather than trust continued dialogue.

Ever since the Progressive Era there has been an "ecumenism of the left," exemplified by the Federal and the National Council of Churches, Reform Jews, and Catholics responsive to the social encyclicals of the popes. In opposition to it there has been a more intermittent "ecumenism of the right," exemplified by fundamentalism and other forms of anti-modernism, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, and kindred movements among Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics.

With the immigration of adherents of other religious traditions, we find them, too, responding to the legal environment in the U.S. in contrary ways, since they have tended to join one or the other of these ecumenisms. For some of them the atmosphere of religious pluralism offers relief from the intense struggles they have experienced in their homelands; thus we find some Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims fighting bigotry and emphasizing what religious faiths have in common. For others, freedom of religion offers them the opportunity to press the claims of their religious traditions upon their own members and emphasize their rights against any form of government regulation. Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), discusses the experiences of adherents of various world religions in the U.S. Out of her Pluralism Project she has a recent software publication (priced at $195) entitled On Common Ground: World Religions in America.

Similar tensions are found within Christianity itself. Many Christians in the Third World suspect that the churches of the West have become apostate. In January of 2000, bishops from Singapore and Rwanda, in violation of the rules of the Lambeth Conference, consecrated two priests as missionary bishops to signal their dismay at the condition of the church in the U.S. and its need for transformation. Conservatives, of course, welcome this support from the Third World, an area with which liberals so often like to profess their solidarity, and they predict with glee that the liberalism of the churches in Europe and the U.S. will be swamped by the growing number of Christians in other areas and by their immigration into the U.S.

The complexities of the situation have been explored by Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christianity: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002), summarized in an article entitled "The Next Christianity," Atlantic Monthly, October 2002, pp. 53-68.

What we are seeing on the world scale is not a Manichaean "clash of civilizations" but a tension that runs through the middle of each civilization and each religious tradition. It is likely that nations in the Third World will go through their own changes analogous to those of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolution, and for similar reasons: religious pluralism, the complexity of economic life, and the reflectiveness that is evoked by factors such as these.

The tensions within and between religions have been explored by Karen Armstrong in Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000) and The Battle for God (Knopf, 2000) .


GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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