Dr. Scott Appleby gave the keynote address and touched on the differences between several religions, including Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu.
The focus of that afternoon's speech and the panel discussion afterwards, was to set the groundwork for the evening's emphasis on answering the question of collaboration.
Dr. Appleby and the panel members pointed out the intricate nature of organized religion - especially being prone to the influence of politics and power.
Bruce Ashford, writing for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, makes the point that you can't separate organized religion from politics, and you shouldn't try to. (He is writing from the point of view that many white evangelicals take.)
On the other hand, John Traphagen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas wrote in a Huffington Post blog piece that separation of church and state is necessary to protect the very freedom of religious expression that has been an integral part of living in the US.
It's basically this tension, between recognizing the influence of politics on religion, and understanding the importance of separation between church and state that can cause conflict.
Freedom of religious expression is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
In the Constitution, freedom of religion is mentioned, in close proximity, to freedom of speech, the press and the right of people living in the US to "peaceably assemble and petition the government."
The framers of the Constitution seemed to understand the danger of linking the two (religion and politics) to the extent of making the formation of a state religion illegal. Perhaps their recent history of only being a few generations removed from Puritans - who were religious refugees from England - helped make them sensitive to this issue.
So, the issue of separation of church and state does not deny the influence that politics has on religion. It directly addresses it.
Too often in human history, religions have aligned themselves closely to governments to attain political power. The past is rife with examples of such actions. From the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, to the Ottoman Wars, to the Pakistan - India conflict, wars in Nigeria, Bosnia and Sudan, The Troubles (pitting Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland) and the current crisis in Burma among the Rohingyans.
All of these conflicts had the commonality of religion feeding ethnic or political differences.
What are ways of reducing conflict?
The First Tee website (actually a golfing organization) incorporates four steps:
2. Actively listen
3. Review Options
4. End with a win/win solution
I would add that preceding any discussion, it's a good idea to promote purposeful understanding. Realize that our religious views - although extremely personal and at times emotional - are not the only viable ones and they don't exist in a cultural vacuum. Understand that other people, including our neighbors, co-workers and friends, may have different religious views than ours, but they are equally valid.
The columnist David Brooks recently penned a piece addressing the broader issue of the current level of cultural polarization. One of the commenters to his column noted: "Evangelical Christians, of whom I am one often confuse love of God with love of country and righteousness with patriotism. This makes it hard for them to separate the private life of faith and public life of citizenship."
And separation between private faith and government has been part of the controversy surrounding senate candidate Ray Moore. When Moore was a federal judge in Alabama, he was suspended from the bench for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in a state building. A few years later, in direct defiance of a US district court order, Moore was again suspended from the bench after ordering state probate judges to ignore a federal ruling that recognized gay marriage. In both cases, Moore went against decisions rendered by federal courts.
He is a professed evangelical who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment when they were in their teens. In commenting on the allegations, William Brewbaker III, a law professor at the University of Alabama noted: "Evangelicals may love their country, and may even believe that it has been, on balance, a force for good, but they cannot affirm that the United States (much less its military) is the world’s hope. Nor can they affirm that a political party (or an institution like the Supreme Court) is the hope of the United States. Whatever their opinions about the political issues of the day, evangelicals must place their hope in Jesus, period.
"While this should not mean disengagement from the public square, it means that such engagement should proceed from a posture of humility, love of neighbor and ultimate loyalty to Christ, instead of arrogantly identifying the success of a given party or political movement with the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Roy Moore’s success among evangelical voters — like Donald Trump’s — is a consequence of the fact that we evangelicals seem to have conveniently forgotten certain fundamental truths. We need to open our Bibles, or maybe better yet, our hymnals: “For not with swords’ loud clashing/Nor roll of stirring drums/With deeds of love and mercy/The heavenly kingdom comes.”
Molly Worthen, writing in the New York Times, observed the inherent challenge of a fundamentalist evangelicalism rooted in 'making America great again,' no matter what the moral consequences. "The battle for the soul of evangelicalism, the struggle to disentangle it from white supremacy, from misogyny — and from the instinct to defend politicians like Roy Moore — demands sound arguments grounded in evidence. But the effort must also advance at the precognitive level, in the habits and relationships of worshiping communities. Fellowship has the power to refashion angry gut feelings and instead form meek hearts and bounden duty."
So, here's how the process of finding commonality towards the common good could work in real life: My neighborhood library recently held two Meet Your Muslim Neighbors events. One was simply a panel discussion that included Muslim and Christian leaders. About a month later, a follow-up event, which included more discussion - but also an opportunity to sit down, have middle-eastern food, and chat with Muslim families.
Since I don't regularly spend time with folks of the Muslim faith, this was my first opportunity to have an actual conversation with a Muslim family. (It's heartening to report that so many people wanted to attend these events that the host site was moved from the local library to a neighborhood United Methodist Church so everyone could be accommodated.)
Separation of church and state, as provided by the First Amendment, allows such events as Meet Your Muslim Neighbors to take place. It's a sign of a healthy democracy. It keeps any religion from overstepping its bounds when influenced by politics and power. And its the First Amendment that keeps the door open to exploring adventurous avenues of cooperation among people of all faiths.
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