America's Religious Landscape Is Changing
This is from the text of a talk delivered before the Southern Pines Rotary on June 11.
By William E. Smith
Special to The Pilot
My cousin, who lives in Sun City, Ariz., is xenophobic. That is, she has an unreasonable fear and even hatred of foreigners. She floods my mailbox with hate literature - especially directed against Muslims, who she believes are out to take over the United States.
And President Obama is implicated. "I am one of them," he is quoted as saying. You and I, according to this propaganda, are infidels, and Muslims intend to destroy all vestiges of Christianity in this country. That's ultimately what the current conflict in the Middle East is all about: the Muslim world against the Jewish/ Christian West. The stakes are high, and we are inextricably involved.
A few months ago, there was a gathering of Muslims on the Capitol grounds to pray, presumably for our nation. My cousin called it a propaganda ploy to curry religious respect. Then she asked, somewhat wistfully, "What ever happened to Christian America?"
Pluralism vs. exclusionism. Acceptance vs. rejection. That's the issue I would like to address in our time together.
This conflict is very much in the news. Consider Arizona's new law - which, according to The New York Times, "turns all Latinos, even legal immigrants and citizens, into criminal suspects." This is not just a local fight. There is talk in Texas of passing a version of the Arizona statute. It is a very serious dilemma, this influx of illegal aliens creating murder and mayhem and smuggling drugs across the border.
Closer to home, think of the fuss in Wake County over the school board's decision to end the diversity-based assignment of pupils and return to neighborhood learning centers. A recent front-page article in The News & Observer of Raleigh showed protestors shouting, "Hey, ho, resegregation has to go," and waving signs reading "Protect Diversity."
Our Moore County schools are becoming increasingly diverse, with 120 Indian/Alaskan natives, 117 Asians (their numbers are increasing), 18 Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, 1,081 Hispanics and 444 students of mixed race. All these newcomers have parents. Are their families welcome? Do they feel at home among us or are they isolated and shunned?
There are some who adamantly reject that notion that there is truth outside their own faith. They steadfastly refuse any engagement with "foreign traditions." Theirs is the one true faith delivered to the saints, and they need look no further.
They remind me of the old fellow who fancied himself an accomplished violinist, who roamed the house constantly playing the same note with great gusto, which drove his poor wife up the wall. Finally she said, "Dear, are you aware that there are other notes to be played on that instrument? Watch the violinists in a symphony orchestra, how their fingers move up and down the fingerboard while the bow crosses the strings. Why don't you play like them?" He replied, "Old woman, you just don't understand. They're searching for the right note. I've found it!"
Avoidance is another way not to deal with diversity. The presence of non-Western religions raises fundamental questions about our historic identity as a Christian nation. They're changing the religious landscape, and frankly we're uncomfortable (threatened) by having too many of them around.
During the last third of the 20th century, about 22 million immigrants came from countries in which Christianity was the dominant religion, and they brought their faith with them. But Christians don't always get along. That's one reason why we have so many denominations.
In Salem, Mass., that historic bastion of Pilgrim Protestantism, I once served a downtown Congregational church while finishing my graduate work at Boston University. The immigrants worked in the textile mills but also clung to their ethnic identities. They lived in familiar enclaves and soon began to build their own churches in the center of their communities, so that eventually there were Irish, Italian, Spanish and French Catholic churches.
Not to be outdone, the Protestants represented five denominations with two churches each. They didn't always get along with each other. But come Reformation Sunday, the Protestants gathered in a theater to celebrate Martin Luther's -triumph over an oppressive medieval church. A nationally known preacher was imported to give the Catholics hell, and we returned to our homes feeling very self-righteous.
Meanwhile the Catholic population outpaced the Protestants, and by the time we arrived in the early '50s, immigrant descendents controlled the political life of the city. Salem - which in Hebrew is translated Shalom (peace) - was not very peaceful.
If Christians can't tolerate each other, how can we expect them to welcome strangers?
Recent immigration has included millions of people from countries in which Christians are only a small minority. Thus, in little more than a generation, the U.S. has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the diversity of many religious traditions scattered throughout our population. More Americans belong to religions outside the Christian tradition now than ever before.
Nor do they live in isolation from other Americans. Many, especially from Europe and increasingly Asia, are middle-class, college educated professionals who live in the same neighborhoods as other Americans, work in the same companies, send their children to the same schools, vote in the same elections, shop at the same malls and watch the same programs on television. Especially in the metropolitan areas of our country, religious diversity is a fact of ordinary life.
The sheer numbers of these new neighbors are impressive. There are 1.3 million Hindus and 4 million American Buddhists. (These two represent the world's oldest religions.) The Muslim population in America is between 6 and 7 million, representing a tenfold increase in three decades.
They, in turn, are part of a worldwide community of approximately one billion followers of Mohammed, whom they consider the final and ultimate prophet of God. Islam is reputed to be the fastest-growing religion in the world.
There are thousands of mosques and Islamic centers scattered across the country. Tens of thousands of students from Muslim countries are enrolled in American universities. In Raleigh there is a mosque on the campus of Shaw University, a Baptist school, built with funds donated by the government of Saudi Arabia. At North Carolina State University, there is a red-brick, two-story building across the street from the soccer field where hundreds of Muslims gather for Friday noon prayers and weekly sermon.
Needed: Greater Respect
The question remains: How shall we, as a predominately Christian culture, deal with diversity? It needs to be said that American Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are wary of furthering mutual understanding. What they do want is greater respect and understanding
How can we bring that about?
For one thing, we can face the fact that we are becoming a pluralistic nation. We cannot think of ourselves as exclusively Christian. In fact we never were, for American Jews have been an established minority since the founding of the Republic
Again, as Christians we need more than a superficial understanding of our own faith. The scandal of Christianity is that "in Jesus Christ God hit the streets." Now that's a radical notion. In the language of Paul, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." How can we hold to that pivotal conviction while respecting those who differ?
It is so easy to become casual Christians who are no match for fanatic believers in Jihad (Holy War). God protects us from that kind of fanaticism, but also helps us to understand that a follower of Jesus Christ has given his/her life to him, is steeped in the biblical message and seeks to be a learning, growing and increasingly compassionate disciple.
Unfortunately we have made discipleship seem easy, and more than 50 percent of our churches offer no opportunities to understand religions other than their own. Dr. Dean Eck, the comparative religion scholar who has spent many years studying world religions abroad and in the United States, has said that we face an unparalleled opportunity to build intentionally and actively a culture of pluralism among people of many cultures and faiths in America. But she warned that we may not succeed, but rather find ourselves fragmented and divided with "too much pluribus and not enough unum."
A Sense of the Transcendent
Face Reality. Seek Under-standing. Again, personal interaction is essential. When a non-Christian family moves into your neighborhood, reach out to welcome them. Bake a cake, send flowers or vegetables from your garden, take them to a concert, invite them over for dinner.
Then, when you are comfortable with a growing sense of relationship, ask your guest, "Please tell me about your religion." But you'd better be prepared to answer the question, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" Understanding the faith of others can be a means of deepening our own!
As a responsible citizen, exercise your political muscle. Urge - no, demand - that your senators and congresspersons get at the task of immigration reform so desperately needed. Then neither Arizona or Texas nor any other state will need to chart its own destiny. Immigration is foremost a national (and international) problem, and only Washington can provide the comprehensive policies needed for this pluralistic society.
Finally, we need a sense of the transcendent now more than ever. Despite all our technological achievements, our vaunted cultural advancement, we cannot resolve these problems by ourselves.
The challenge before us is very clear: Can we build a nation proud of its diversity, where God is at the center, living in harmony with our Maker and each other, striving for a more peaceful world? May God grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.
Dr. William E. Smith is a retired United Methodist minister who served churches in New England, Maryland and Ohio and also taught at several institutions, including the Divinity School at Duke University. He lives in Penick Village
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