When Christiane Amanpour asked yesterday on This Week, “What do you think are the key, pressing spiritual issues of our time?” my answer was quick and clear. I said, “The role religion is going to play in the 21st century is going to be one of the key issues. Faith can either be a barrier of division, a bomb of destruction, or a bridge of cooperation. Our job is to make it a bridge of cooperation.”
Every day we see in the newspaper and hear in the evening news stories of religion playing a bomb or barrier. As I looked around at the other members of the roundtable I was part of on This Week - a Southern Baptist in Richard land, an African American Christian in Al Sharpton, a Catholic in Cokie Roberts and a Jew in Steve Roberts - I thought to myself, this is a microcosm of America. We all have to be bridge-builders, and we are in the most ideal nation to do so.
In What it Means to be an American , Michael Walzer points out that political theorists since the Greeks believed that participatory politics – democracy – could only exist in ethnically or religiously homogenous nations. “One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community … One people made one state.” The section ends with this line: “Pluralism in the strong sense – One state, many peoples – is possible only under tyrannical regimes.”
The next section begins with this: “Except in the United States.”
America ushered in a very new idea - a place where people from the four corners of the earth gather together to build a nation. President Obama spoke of it in his inaugural: “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
We are a nation that allows its citizens to participate in its progress, to play a part in its possibility, to carve a place in its promise.
It was an ethic that our first president, George Washington, embraced as well: “The bosom of America is open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
When Amanpour asked me what my community is most worried about right now- for our children, for our future - my response was that I was concerned that we will be less free and less equal in America than other Americans. While that is certainly a concern of mine in the short run, it is not in the long run. And another comment from the roundtable is the reason for this.
Steve Roberts, a Jew, said that the great spiritual crisis of our time is intolerance, especially against Muslims and Latinos.
His comment embodies the American way – groups who have experienced intolerance in the past stand up for those who experience intolerance now.
It is how we build an America where all are free and equal.