The Universal Notebook: Wrestling with religious tolerance

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Polite people don’t talk publicly about sex, money or religion. That’s what I was brought up to believe, so I guess I’m not a very polite person.

I was also brought up to be tolerant of different religious beliefs. I do my best, but I’m not perfect. And I don’t regard being critical as the same thing as being intolerant.

Currently, the United States is in the midst of an anti-Muslim hysteria brought on by the prospect of a mosque being built a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. To blame all Muslims for the crimes of a few Islamic extremists strikes me as bigoted and irrational. It’s like blaming all Christians for the hateful actions of a few misguided fundamentalists – killing abortion doctors in the name of Right to Life, say, or picketing the funerals of veterans because they oppose gays in the military.

God knows there have been a lot of atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion.

When I read about the barbaric stoning deaths of adulterers in places such as Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, it’s hard to see through my outrage to the fact that Taliban thugs are not the true face of Islam. And I am reminded, too, that there are passages in the Bible that prescribe just such barbarism for infidelity and homosexuality. In order to follow the Bible to the letter, one would have be to the Christian equivalent of the Taliban, which is why I have so little tolerance for Christians who selectively cite the Bible as the source authority for their opposition to gay marriage.

We used to do a pretty good job in this country separating church and state, but these days conservative Christians insist that their religious beliefs should be the law of the land. Surely, I am not alone in finding it hypocritical that right-wing rabble-rouser Glenn Beck, whose own Mormon beliefs are hardly mainstream Christianity, should be leading an evangelical movement and questioning President Obama’s Christianity. As long as the government doesn’t tell them how to worship, they shouldn’t expect to tell the rest of us how to live, which is what the Catholic Church in Maine did when it led the repeal of marriage equity.

I’ve had a couple of readers accuse me of being anti-Catholic because I have criticized the Catholic Church for its stand against gay marriage and because I have suggested that a celibate, all-male priesthood is inherently unhealthy, contributing to the epidemic of sexual abuse. I grew up in predominantly Catholic communities, have a lot of Catholic friends, and, in general, share the Christian theology of the Catholic Church. But, again, being critical of certain stands and practices doesn’t strike me as the same thing as being intolerant of their religious beliefs.

It’s difficult for someone like myself, who believes in gender equality, to be tolerant of a religion, be it Catholicism or Islam, that treats women as subservient. But as long as they don’t try to impose their sectarian sexism on society at large, I figure it’s none of my business. I wouldn’t support a law that told the Catholic Church it had to ordain women. So I don’t expect the Catholic Church to support laws that tell non-Catholics who can marry and who can terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Still, God’s law, whether in the form of the Bible or Sharia, seems to be coming into increasing conflict with human law as the line between the sacred and the secular gets erased by theocrats. As long as the moral teachings of a religion do not violate civil or criminal law, as stoning adulterers to death does, we must tolerate their enforcement on willing believers.

And when it comes to where Muslims can build mosques, we must treat them the same way we would treat where Christians can build churches or Jews can build synagogues. To do otherwise would be unfair and un-American. To the degree that Americans sacrifice the fundamental principle of freedom of religion, the jihadists win.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.