- Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America
Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council addressing the Catholic Church’s relationship with the other religious traditions, was promulgated in Rome in 1965, a mere three weeks after President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law a far-reaching reform of U.S. immigration policy. At the time, no commentator had the foresight to connect these two events. In hindsight, however, both the Council document and the new law must be seen as related “signs of the times.” LBJ signed the immigration bill into law beneath the Statue of Liberty, not realizing that most of immigrants would come into the United States via San Francisco and Los Angeles, not New York. Overturning discriminatory legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the new policy made possible a dramatic increase in immigration from places like China and Korea, India and Vietnam. Immigrants have come from places like Iran and Palestine, Pakistan and Morocco as well. What links the new immigration law with the promulgation of Nostra Aetate is that these new immigrants have brought their religious traditions with them. In the United States, small towns in Indiana and Iowa have mosques. Hindu temples can be found nestled within the Bible Belt. Diana Eck, the director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, claims that Los Angeles is the most interesting Buddhist city in the world. I have lived in Kyoto and visited fine old Buddhist cities like Bangkok. Now I live in Los Angeles. Diana Eck is right.
Gustav Niebuhr, formerly a journalist covering religion for the New York Times and now teaching at Syracuse University, has written a hope-filled account of his travels across the nation probing this new religious diversity. Niebuhr’s interests are journalistic, not theological or sociological, and the book proceeds by means of a first-person narrative that would be at home in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. This format serves his purpose well. Niebuhr is not interested in giving us another book on religious fanaticism and its militant proponents, although he has a few stories documenting the ugly footprints of religious intolerance in the USA, especially after the atrocities of 9/11. Neither is this a book about the Christian theology of religions or the theological underpinnings of interreligious dialogue. Instead, Niebuhr has written a book about what he recognizes as a “counter-trend” to the violent and fanatical impression we get of religious believers in the press. He shines a journalistic light on America’s religious diversity as a resource, not a burden, for American society. In doing so, Niebuhr succeeds in drawing our attention to the many religious people in the United States who are building new forms of civil society through interreligious dialogue and cooperation with their neighbors who follow other religious paths.
Niebuhr has little to say about the so-called “pluralists” who would bend the different faiths into a shape compliant with some putative common denominator. In fact, the idea that all religions are expressions of a truth that is single and transcendent but expressed in different forms does not seem to have much traction at the grass-roots level. Instead, Niebuhr documents example after example of local religious leaders—rabbis and Protestant ministers, imams and Hindu priests—who are building bridges of solidarity with their neighbors. These religious leaders seem to have an intuitive sense for what Martin Luther King wrote about from his jail cell in Birmingham: “We are caught in an inescapable world of mutuality, tied in [End Page 118] a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In Sacramento, for example, Methodists have raised money to restore vandalized synagogues in their community. Muslims paid their respects at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as a symbolic protest against the comments made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his notorious conference on the Holocaust in Tehran. To be sure, Franklin Graham has said that Islam is “evil,” and Virgil H. Goode Jr., a member of the House of...