The 11th anniversary of 9/11 last week provided us with an opportunity to remember, reflect, and also ask ourselves what we will do in response to make this a better country and world following that event. Some of that reflection should involve Evangelical consideration of our country’s pluralistic religious makeup.
America is religiously diverse, including is our political process, and many Evangelicals aren’t happy about it. In fact, it is bringing the fears of many to the surface, including some of our most influential Evangelical media figures. In the process, we are embarrassing ourselves and doing the Evangelical community, and others in the public square, a disservice. We can and should do better in the way of Christ.
An example of this Evangelical fear came in connection with the Republican National Convention meeting at the end of August. The RNC took the bold step of inviting Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, to provide the prayer of invocation for the gathering. The Republicans took this step in the wake of the recent Wisconsin shootings by a white supremacist at a Sikh gurdwara, a place of worship and community gathering. Happy to be a part of this event and to contribute beyond it to the nation, Singh was quoted as saying that, “I hope that my presence Wednesday on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs – and people of all races, faiths and orientations – be seen as part of a great American family.”
But some Evangelicals aren’t ready for those of non-Christian religious groups to be part of the country’s kin. This includes those like Janet Mefferd, host of a syndicated radio program that bears her name, and which includes 110 affiliates across the nation. She is not only unhappy with a Sikh providing a prayer on the national stage of America’s political process, but she also echoed earlier Evangelical protests over Romney’s Mormon background. She said,
“This adds new spin to my view of what’s going on at the RNC right now because you still hear a little bit of talk of God here and there, but it’s different. When Mitt Romney talks about God, he’s not talking about our God and he has yet to give his speech yet. But we now have a party that is allowing people to pray at the Republican National Convention who don’t have the slightest similarity to us, when it comes to our view of God, at all. At all."Mefferd’s concern over non-Christian religious adherents actively participating in our political process, or at least that of the Republican party, were evident and worthy of discussion, but with the comments that followed she took it to an even darker place:
“And look how far we’ve come. Now, 2012 we have somebody from an Eastern religion offering the invocation at the Republican National Convention. I’m not saying people from different religions can’t vote Republican, but what this really is is a syncretism that is kind of seeping under the door like a gas” (emphasis mine).Mefferd’s statements, which likely resonate with many in her large Evangelical audience, are alarming on a number of levels. In his book Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism, Jason Bivins analyzes conservative evangelicalism, which he describes as having a political orientation that is “shaped and spread by pop cultural narratives of fear and horror.” Mefferd’s political and religious rhetoric of fear fits within Bivins’ analysis. The language of other religions seeping like a gas brings to mind an invisible and likely toxic danger. Such concepts poison not only our understanding of other religions within Evangelicalism, but they also taint the perception of us by those in other religious communities. As a case in point, I learned about Mefferd’s comments from a Pagan friend of mine who writes for a blog that is prominent within his religious community. He understands the state of affairs better than many Evangelicals. In response to Mefferd’s comments he correctly observed, “The truth is that non-Christians have been ‘seeping under the door’ for generations, it’s just that we can no longer ignore them, their issues, and their desires. We don’t live in a monoculture where it’s acceptable to ignore voices or views that ‘don’t fit.’”
In centuries past the Jewish people learned how to live as God’s people when they were a minority population due to periods of captivity. Years later the earliest Christians learned how to be love their neighbors as a small and oppressed religious community in the Roman Empire. Somehow, along the way to a Christendom culture in America where the church was dominant and many times influenced the national agenda, Christians developed monopolistic and exclusionary mindsets. Those things that had once been forced upon their spiritual ancestors they are now all too eager to foist upon others.
But we live in a post-Christendom America. Surveys indicate that while Evangelicalism is still numerically large and influential, it has lost ground, both in terms of membership, and in terms of credibility within among young people, and on the outside as well, where both groups see it as judgmental and oppressive. Engaging others in a post-Christendom environment means that we can no longer assume either a monoculture, or a pluralistic culture with non-Christians who will sit quietly on the sidelines while we hope to exclude them and describe them as a toxic fume creeping under the door of America’s political process.
There is a better way forward among Evangelicals. In the wake of such troubling attitudes, coupled with recent news stories documenting the Sikh shooting and ongoing vandalism and violence against Muslims and their mosques, Evangelicals must involve themselves in relationship-based forms of education and service that combines understanding of those of other religions with the context of personal relationships. This relational context enables us to overcome our misunderstandings, our biases, and our prejudices so that we might be better prepared to live our faith as a part of the great American experiment in pluralism.