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Religion, Varied and Conflictual PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, October 26 2004 19:00
In another space, I recently wrote about John Kerry as a Catholic. In response, a reader contacted me to express his indignation at my having suggested that the Democratic nominee for president takes his religious faith seriously.

Not so, protested the reader, claiming that Senator Kerry never mentions God, does not go to church, and has a faith that is entirely bogus. A follow-up conversation with the reader produced nothing but more invective against the nominee.

Of course, I respect the right of every person to vote as he sees fit. Nonetheless, I feel troubled by this reader’s intemperate reaction to my carefully expressed appraisal of a public figure’s stance toward God.

In that column I had suggested that Kerry’s religious faith was among his greatest assets because it can lead him to value the dimensions of life that go beyond the material and pragmatic and to judge the actions he takes by a higher standard than the merely expedient. The same can be said of the faith of George W. Bush.

The extent to which religion has figured in this year’s election for president has surprised some observers. And yet, Americans are known as among the most religious people in the world, with two-thirds answering a Pew poll by saying that religion plays a very important part in their lives.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion about religious issues during the past year has proven unbalanced and divisive. The reader who shared his views with me did not help: he was just plain wrong about the facts and, it seems, highly prejudiced.

From the perspective of spirituality, his statements seem especially regrettable because they reflect rash judgments about another person. How can anyone assert that the faith of another person is hypocritical, unless that person’s actions demonstrate clear contradictions?

My hope is for this year’s electoral struggles not to leave behind a legacy of religious bitterness. It would be spiritually damaging to this country if ill will among those of different religious views were to take firm hold.

Speaking about my own tradition, I feel concern about the effects of those American Catholic bishops who have threatened John Kerry with a kind of excommunication for supporting legislation permitting abortion. Like many other Catholic politicians, Senator Kerry opposes abortion itself but he considers banning it unwise for fear of unleashing other evils.

This position is awkward but does not deserve being branded sinful. Instead of hurting Kerry at the election booth, it may provoke a backlash among Catholics against those bishops.

There is no single way of being religious. Instead, people have various styles of religious life. Some are comfortable expressing their beliefs openly, while others show more reserve about their faith. Many New Englanders have a sober style of religiosity and shrink from emotional expressions of belief. For people in some other parts of the country, such expression is an integral part of religion.

Life would be dull were we all the same. Though I am myself reserved in religious practice, I have often enjoyed sharing in celebrations that feature exuberant singing, dancing, and outbursts of religious emotion.

But respect for religious diversity is not enough. One cannot assert that, if we are simply tolerant of one another, problems will disappear. Issues like the relationship between church and state, for instance, cannot be easily resolved. To cite just one area of concern, I feel wary of the way that the current administration has implemented the so-called “faith-based initiative.” And, for me, the ongoing disputes about same gender marriage are much less important than the fact of so many children living in poverty, even in America.

I must also confess deep concern when public officials speak as if they have an open telephone line to God. Invoking God as supporting a given policy seems to me a misuse of religion. Especially does this apply when the deity is presented as approving of a war or other grave actions that offend morality.

That so many Americans are religious should be seen as something good. So, too, is our variety of religious thought and practice. Our country is wide enough to accommodate different ways of being religious.

However, we religious folks must also be vigilant enough not to accept false uses of religion that compromise faith and twist it to justify policies and actions that are morally offensive.

Richard Griffin