November 24, 2018


The Call of Covenantal Pluralism: Defeating Religious Nationalism with Faithful Patriotism (Chris Seiple, 11/13/18, FPRI)

This article based on the 22nd Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion & World Affairs, given by Dr. Chris Seiple on 30 October 2018 at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.

The Foreign Policy Research Institute was kind enough to put me up at the Union League. It was founded in 1862 as a "patriotic society" to support the Union and the policies of President Abraham Lincoln, and then work with freed slaves in the South after the war.

Why did Lincoln need such support? Because he was fighting a religious nationalism not unlike the examples above. As Yale historian Harry S. Stoudt writes in his 2006 book, Upon the Altar of the Nation:

Clerical voices--which mattered greatly as moral arbiters and upholders of a virtuous social order--so meshed evangelical Christianity with Southern republicanism that one seemingly could not exist without the other. . . . Christianity offered the only terms out of which a national [Southern] identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued . . . God, who had ordained or at least permitted slavery, would never bless the Christ-denying, humanistic North (pp. 10, 43, 97).

In reacting to the Equal Justice Initiative 2015 report on the thousands of lynchings between 1877 and 1950, a writer for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher, himself from Louisiana, concluded the following in his blog, "When ISIS Ran the American South:"

No, the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror [like ISIS]. But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.

As the October 2018 tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue reminds us, this white nationalist cancer is not only still here, it is metastasizing. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that over the last decade, 71% of domestic extremist-related killings in the United States were linked to right-wing extremists. The ADL also reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitism in 2017. [...]

President Lincoln, of course, set the example we need, when considering such things. As you might know, when asked amidst the Civil War whose side was God on, he famously responded:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God's side. For God is always right!

There was a deep humility in Lincoln's theology. He absolutely believed in an Absolute, but recognized that he could not know, let alone speak for the Absolute, absolutely.

How do we reclaim such a posture, in both our policies and our practices?

In April 2012, the late Jack Templeton, patron of this lecture series, challenged me to codify my experiences at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) into a theory of change. He wanted to know how and why IGE's approach effected positive and sustainable change. He wanted to know why IGE was worth funding.

Before I could produce a theory of change (which would eventually take form through this article), I had to wrestle with the words that I had begun to use to describe the complicated places that IGE had been engaging around the world. My experience overseas had one common factor: the relationship between the ethno-religious majority and the ethno-religious minorities. Almost all situations had some element of the tension between the two, of the former's desire to exercise power without including the latter.

Five sets of terms emerged from my early years at IGE. In using these terms to illustrate a positive vs. negative vision, I do not mean to suggest that some words are bad. I simply use them to elicit better thinking about the approach (and values) that is the best of America.

Respect vs. Tolerance. Respect values the essence of the other's identity, without sacrificing the substance of one's own. In other words, "respecting" those beliefs does not necessarily lend moral equivalence. Respect simply means that everyone should respect the inherent dignity of every human, to include the innate liberty of conscience common to all. Respect therefore encourages the right to exercise that liberty of conscience, even if the conclusions drawn are different from one's own.

Tolerance is not enough. It allows merely for the presence of the other. No one wants to be tolerated.

Faith vs. religion. Faith is the mystery, majesty, and mercy of something greater than oneself, resulting in a constant humility of theology. It involves absolutely believing in an Absolute, but knowing it impossible to speak for the Absolute, absolutely. There are core values, to be sure, but there is also respect for the market place of ideas and beliefs, and that much can be learned from them.

Religion, on the other hand, absolutely speaks for the Absolute. There is nothing new under the sun, for the lines are clear, as the mind of God is known. There is no market place because religion holds a monopoly on truth. There is no need to listen or learn.

Multi-faith vs. interfaith. Multi-faith acknowledges and names--at the appropriate time--the irreconcilable theological differences between and among the faith traditions. These differences are not named to divide, but to understand and demonstrate respect for the essence of someone else's identity. In other words, it is impossible to know someone without knowing their core beliefs.

Interfaith, however, tends to suggest a blending of theologies. Too often, interfaith dialogues water-down the differences, reducing rich traditions to such banal commonalities that there seemingly were no differences to begin with. Discovering common values only possesses meaning when the richness of the different points of moral departure are also understood. Put differently, if there is no understanding of difference, then there can be no respect. Incidentally, when real mutual respect takes root, practical collaboration tends to happen faster.

Patriotism vs. nationalism. Patriotism is pride in one's country--a legally defined state with international boundaries, that includes many nations and faiths. Patriotism is defined by what it is for, including everyone as equal citizens under the transparent rule of law, with the opportunity for each to practice and bring their beliefs to bear in the public square.

Nationalism tends to be a xenophobic pride of the ethno-religious majority, defining against ethnic/religious minorities. It seeks a nation-state: a state with one homogenous people group. [...]

Put differently, the above five comparisons are wrestling with the fundamental question of civilization: how do we live with our deepest differences (without killing each other)? Another way to frame these five concepts is to ask this question: how do we move beyond tolerance and diversity, beyond tolerating someone's presence beside you, as we live side-by-side?

Seemingly, there is only one answer: mutual engagement based on mutual respect for the other's liberty of conscience. To borrow from Star Trek, liberty of conscience seems to be the Prime Directive of civilization. As Sir John Templeton wrote in Wisdom from World Religions: "Conscience is as essential as the air we breathe . . . present wherever we look and whenever we look" (p. 174).

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, would agree. In The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1671), he wrote: "Imposition, restraint, and persecution for matters relating to conscience directly invade the divine prerogative, and divest the Almighty of a due, proper to none besides himself." Or, less eloquently, but perhaps more memorably, Roger Williams said: "Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God."

The above discussion speaks to a more comprehensive concept. Call it: Covenantal Pluralism. Covenantal Pluralism entails the obligation, the responsibility, and intentional pledge to engage, respect, and protect the other's liberty of conscience, without necessarily lending moral equivalency to the other's resulting beliefs and behavior.

Covenantal Pluralism requires a faithful patriotism that seeks an entrepreneurial competition--i.e., a cooperative competition that is loving, spirited, and constructive--that stands against the monopoly of religious nationalism. This Covenantal Pluralism, therefore, is not only the right thing to do, it is in everyone's self-interest.

While generally excellent, he gets assimilation somewhat wrong, as liberty is precisely the mechanism whereby freedom is universally limited within a democratic society. You are allowed your freedom of "conscience" within the strictures that bind us all. Thus, you are certainly free not to consume certain foods or eat at certain times, but are not free to burn widows or genitally mutilate young girls just because your conscience is untroubled by such.

Posted by at November 24, 2018 12:51 AM