Religion and Its Bigotry

Following the Indian Ocean tsunami that swept across 14 Asian and African nations in 2004, killing 283,000 people, one of the first aid organizations to arrive in countries with body bags and 72 hour kits was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. The Mormons rallied with 72 hour survival kits, and I soon learned beyond the medicines, water and food found in the kits the Mormons placed a prayer cloth and a Quran. WOW, I thought – would any other conservative religious tradition be so respectful of another’s religion? The Mormons did NOT see this as an opportunity to proselytize but to bring healing and restoration.

My academic training is in Church History. I majored in History as an undergraduate, specialized in Medieval Church History and Historical Theology in Seminary, and did doctoral work in both Medieval Church History and American Church History. I have looked at religion from just about every approach one can take. And, to be frank – the deeper I look and the longer I look the more disgusted I become.

I came to faith through the Church of the Nazarene, which is rooted in the theological tradition of John and Charles Wesley. The Church of the Nazarene was born in the context of its concern for the poor. They have historically expressed what I have experienced in my personal faith and journey.

Seeing the recent preoccupation of the media with Republican suitors for the presidency and their focus on Governor Rick Perry and the Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress and his attempt to drive a wedge between Romney and politically conservative voters is another troubling revelation of the fine line between truth and bigotry. Forget the media’s need to keep the story alive and focus for a few moments on the arrogance of any of us to indict Mitt Romney because he belongs to a religious tradition that is just that – a religious tradition.

To be sure, the historical views of Mormons on marriage (polygamy) and race is not only unfortunate but challenges their assumption about how they were founded by a forgiving and inclusive God. These positions have been modified over time and no longer define their tradition. But then again, most conservative communities, including my own, accepted Apartheid in South Africa and dismissed it as a cultural and political anomaly that we should not challenge. Pick up that stone, if you are worthy.

All of this is now focused on Mormons – God forbid if we were to look seriously at our “Islamaphobia” that now condemns all Muslims to the scrap heap of history. The blogs and Facebook posts that continue to lump together all Muslims with Osama Bin Laden are reprehensible, bald-faced lies contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.

The sweep of history is a sad tale of blaming another’s religion for our own inadequacies. Whether it was Isabella and Ferdinand who drove the Muslims and Jews out of Spain in 1492, or some pastor’s need to make Perry more Christian than Romney, this whole discussion of one’s personal faith and its influence on public policy is a Trojan Horse. It is nothing more than an attempt to couch our political positions into a belief system that we want God to sanction. Imagine what we could do if we took “religious tradition” off the table as an influence on the way we do policy. Palestinians would not seek to push Israel into the sea and Jews and some apocalyptic Christians would not seek to justify their existence on Old Testament theory of pre-eminence. Mormons and Evangelicals could stand shoulder – to – shoulder with their concern for the family, the poor and the unborn. They could build bridges to the broken in the Horn of Africa – mostly Muslim – that are facing political and environmental famine and its consequence – starvation.

Recently in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, a Christian leader with tears in his eyes said, “Jim I don’t see Muslims I see women, children and men in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and we have the power to help.” Yeah, my friend has figured it out. It should be one’s personal faith that defines our life and actions not the coercion of organized religion. I am convinced that God wastes no time on our attempts to divide each other by religious traditions but looks at how we live our lives in light of his sacrifice for each and EVERYONE of us. To paraphrase one of my favorite 19th Century European philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard – a long time critic of the Church – cut through the rubbish and try love. Now there is a thought. In this current political environment we will need a very big knife.

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