Fundamentalist Islam, Christianity and tolerance

Posted: Oct 17, 2001 12:00 AM
I sincerely don't want to start an argument over religion, especially in these sensitive times, but I feel compelled to defend the Christian faith so that it does not become "collateral damage" in our war on terrorism. Because the terrorists who attacked America proceed from an extreme religious mindset, some are attempting to smear evangelical Christianity, which they see as similarly extreme and intolerant. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, political science professor Alan Wolfe quotes Osama bin Laden as saying there is only one God and that the whole world is split into two camps: belief and disbelief. "Osama bin Laden's words are chilling, not only because they threaten further terrorism, but also because they echo themes that have run through America's own religious history." Wolfe cites examples of Christian intolerance in American history, but expresses his relief that America has now changed. We are still a religious society, he says, but no longer intolerant, except for extremists in the Christian right, typified by the favorite whipping boys, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "To be sure, religious fundamentalists have prominent political presence even now. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, for example, are not averse to invoking a language of crusade in the political arena." And Wolfe doesn't stop there, reminding us that there are plenty of other dangerous Christians where Robertson and Falwell come from. "There are, of course, American believers who evangelize, persuaded that those who do not believe as they do are destined for hell. Yet there are far more who believe that whatever their own path to God, other people will choose different paths that deserve respect." Now, to the clincher: Wolfe says that the Taliban and bin Laden are at war with us because they believe in forcibly imposing their religion on others. So, he concludes, bin Laden is wrong when he says that this war is between belief and nonbelief. "It is instead about two different ways of believing, only one of which allows for individual conscience and freedom. The refusal of the other to make that allowance is what makes terrorism against nonbelievers possible." Unless I'm misreading the professor, he is establishing moral equivalence between bin Laden's brand of Islam and Falwell's brand of Christianity, and suggesting they are equally extreme and dangerous. This is tantamount to saying that Biblical Christianity is intolerant, extreme and dangerous. In case you're wondering, Wolfe is not alone in his assessment. His views are more widely held than you think, as evidenced by many e-mails I received after my last column. That's why so many regard Christianity with such visceral contempt and believe that Christians are fair game for ridicule and persecution. Robertson and Falwell, as far as I know, have never urged America to convert other nations to Christianity by force. You may find offensive Falwell's comment that God has removed his hand of protection from America, but it was not a call to arms against other nations in the name of Christianity. Contrary to the belief of some, evangelical Christians do not want a Christian theocracy in the United States, much less in the rest of the world. Most Christians are vigorous proponents of freedom. They fiercely support the First Amendment's Establishment clause – it was mostly Christians who adopted it – but they don't believe in extending it to absurd extremes. I will not duck the fact that Christianity adheres to moral absolutes and is not tolerant of sinful behavior. But Christianity hates the sin, not the sinner. Tolerance doesn't require that we discard our moral standards. It also doesn't mean that we accept as true, opposing belief systems. It means "to recognize and respect others' beliefs without sharing them." I will not deny that Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. But one of the best-kept secrets is that many other religions claim exclusivity as well. As to their respective exclusive claims, they can't all be true, unless you believe that contradictory things can be true simultaneously. Without question, many Christians continue to evangelize, but they do so not out of disrespect for other religions, but from love and obedience. Jesus called on all Christians to spread the Gospel, but not by violent means. I want to say emphatically that Christianity respects other beliefs, and neither encourages nor condones discrimination or violence against non-Christians. It is unfortunate that so many have distorted these truths and impugned an absolutely loving religion.