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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Commentary

Too bad world doesn’t adopt U.S.’s tolerance toward religion

Published:

In Iraq and Syria, it is one branch of Muslim fighting another.

In the Central African Republic, it is Christian against Muslim (and vice versa) in a struggle to the death.

In Myanmar, the former Burma, it is Buddhist against Muslim, and elsewhere it is Muslim against Hindu.

And, of course, there’s always the struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and deeply held religious beliefs figure largely in that never-ending struggle, too.

In short, although the Christian Crusades may be ancient history, around the world religious faith — zealotry, actually — is very much responsible for a great deal of spilled blood.

In Europe, religious faith has lost a lot of ground to secularism. In the United Kingdom, for example, church attendance has been dwindling for years, and atheism and agnosticism are commonplace.

In the United States, mainstream religion remains the cultural norm, and although there are examples of religious intolerance and extremism, they’re relatively minor aspects of the American attitudes toward faith.

There’s the Westboro Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla., which is notorious for picketing the funerals of American soldiers. Also, there are the occasional fanatics who kill doctors who perform abortions, or bomb their clinics. Close to home, we’ve seen anti-Muslim prejudice in the burning of the Koran and the all-too-common, if patently ignorant, resentment.

And there are politicians who wrap themselves in religion as they promote particular policies and programs.

For the most part, however, Americans can be gratified that the differences among the various religious faiths in this country are far less likely to provoke violence. And that debate is far more elevated today than it was just half a century ago.

The climate began to change after American voters elected John F. Kennedy president in 1960, putting a Catholic in the White House for the first time. But for this country, Kennedy’s political quest was a real test, and most of us would argue that the country passed that test, although it wasn’t easy.

For example, the Fair Campaign Practices Committee reported that during his campaign 392 anti-Catholic publications were distributed to voters, with an estimated circulation as high as 25 million.

Kennedy’s most ardently religious foes argued that a Catholic’s first allegiance is to the pope, that the church’s hierarchy controls the lives of the faithful and that a Catholic president would establish a Catholic state.

They also argued that Kennedy would force the American people to embrace Catholic beliefs.

A group of 150 Protestants led by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale accused the Catholic Church of being a “political as well as religious organization” and declared it had frequently repudiated the principle “that every man shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in religious matters.”

Facing that kind of attack from prominent Protestants, Kennedy decided to tackle the issue head-on in September 1960 at a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him,” he said.

“I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

It was a landmark speech, well remembered in political circles, although it wasn’t necessarily well received by the nation’s Catholics. They expressed — and still do — various degrees of resentment that one of their own would express such a strong sense of independence from the church’s teachings.

But the debate was, and remains, a polite one. It did not threaten then, nor does it threaten now, to become a source of violence such as we see too often in other countries.

If only the United States could export its embrace of religious tolerance the way it exports its movies and its music … and its fast-food fashions.

Al Hutchison is a retired newspaper executive living in Citrus County.

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