After Louie Giglio, maybe we should rethink the inaugural benediction

January 11, 2013
(lee Steffen, AP) I also disagree with his jacket.
I also disagree with his jacket. (lee Steffen/Associated Press)

On Thursday, Louie Giglio withdrew from delivering the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration, after outcry about a sermon he delivered years ago. It is easier, it turns out, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an evangelical pastor who made anti-gay comments in the 1990s to deliver a benediction at the inauguration. 

But what does it all mean?

Are we — as some argue — entering a golden age of meta-bigotry, where the only thing we don’t tolerate is intolerance?

I am not sure this is quite true. But what if it is?

Do I want the world to be safe for bigots? This particular case is a far cry from that question, but in general, I think I do. If only because one of the persistent facts of modern life, what with the long arc of history bending slowly towards justice, is that you are never as entirely free of prejudice as you think you are. You try. You try so hard. Every day I devote long hours to trying to think of ways my grandchildren will consider me bigoted, and how I might work around them. “I didn’t know toasters had emotions,” I will say. “But now that I do, of course they should unionize!”

Finding non-controversial pastors to give benedictions, who are actually pastors and not TV platitude salesmen is, well, difficult. Pastors are a group of people, often in robes or with guitars, who are trying to tell you how you should live your life. It’s an antiquated pursuit. We will tell you what to wear and what not to say and what you should be rubbing on your elbow, at this very moment, but we won’t tell you How To Live Your Life. Your parents will. But for the most part, we try not to judge. And if you don’t believe me, visit the Internet.

As a society, we have gotten much better about accepting differences. We do more than tolerate. We celebrate. Bring me a difference, and I will throw that difference a party. But in the course of this tolerance we miss the fact that religious tolerance is a totally different breed of tolerance from the other kinds.

Religious tolerance means that you accept people who believe what you do not believe — people, in fact, who believe that what you believe is deeply and fundamentally wrong. Religious tolerance is the ability to tolerate the existence of people who think you are so wrong that you will be suffering eternal torment later. That’s much harder to stomach. After all, you are right.

We try not to notice this. We try to vaguely round it down into the same category as the other tolerances. All those signs on the doors of classrooms say things like, “We welcome everyone here: gay, straight, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Hindu.” As though these things were exactly comparable. Religion is not some way you were born. Even if you were born into it, it’s a choice — one of the deepest and most personal choices there is. That’s the whole nature of faith. You can’t be a Christian without choosing to be a Christian. You can be female or white or tall or short without ever making a conscious choice about it. But you have to choose what you believe — or whether you believe at all. And we are bound to respect that choice, even if we viscerally disagree.

We try, these days, to reconcile religious differences. “Well, it all comes down to love,” we mutter. “If you don’t think so, you’re doing it wrong.” And that’s what I think. But I recognize that freedom of religion by definition is the freedom for you to disagree with me on this. “No,” you can hiss, “I believe that it all comes down to hate!” And then I can get up and sit somewhere else. But I will defend forever your right to believe I am wrong. I will even defend your right to get together and yell angrily with like-minded people about Satan, every week, if you like, although I’ll try to keep you away from my theoretical future kids.

One man’s deeply held religious belief is another man’s inane medieval bigotry. But to make it work as a society full of Wrong-Headed People, I can accept that you believe something awful, and as long as you do not do anything hateful with that belief, I can notice that you are capable of good things too. I can listen to you and break bread with you and be on the same stage with you.

Which brings us back to Louie Giglio.

This was one call. Louie Giglio has dedicated years of his life to ending human trafficking, which was why he got invited in the first place. But he also believes (or at least, he has not recanted) some things that sound frankly extremely backward and awful and harmful. Why should we have to listen to a prayer from him? Are there not thousands of other people of faith who do not hold these unpleasant notions? Why should the president have to share the stage with a bigot? Why should he be given a forum to be heard, even if what he had to say was unlikely to be a rousing, vitriolic denunciation and more likely to be a brief prayer?

Maybe this seemed easy. What he said then was so wrong. There are so many other people. Intolerance will not be tolerated.

But what about the next time? Religion evolves only so fast. Some would say it does not evolve at all. And what does this say about our religious tolerance? I hope, nothing. We’re denying him a podium, not whipping out stakes and calling in people with torches to come running.

But still, what did we expect?

If you have a benediction in the first place, it’s going to be made by someone who believes something religious, or — it’s not a benediction. And the antonym of religion is “The Set of Things Everyone Agrees on and There Is No Controversy About.” If the pope were invited to give the benediction, we would not even have to look into the 1990s to find objectionable comments. Religious beliefs, are easy to quibble with. You said this bread does what, exactly?

Maybe, you would say, this is a kooky holdover that should no longer be held over. My beliefs are your bigotry, and there is no place for that here. Maybe freedom of religion should be freedom from religion. But in that case, why have a benediction at all?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | January 11, 2013