'Beyond Tolerance' by Gustav Niebuhr

By Matt Welch,
editor in chief of Reason magazine
Thursday, November 27, 2008


Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America

By Gustav Niebuhr

Viking. 218 pp. $25.95

The thesis of Gustav Niebuhr's book could fit on an index card: In order to build a more peaceful world, humans need to move beyond mere tolerance of one another's differences and engage in direct, open-minded acts of interfaith dialogue and understanding. Extending that simple insight over 218 pages is challenge enough. But doing so without lapsing into either ecumenical banality or religious favoritism proves too daunting a task, even for a writer of Niebuhr's talents.

A former religion reporter for the New York Times and The Washington Post, now an associate professor of religion and media at Syracuse University, Niebuhr experienced something of a slow-motion revelation a few months after Sept. 11. Sent to cover what he and many others feared might become a wave of "backlash attacks" against Muslims and brown-skinned people, he slowly realized that something closer to the opposite was taking place.

Rabbis and reverends were calling local mosques, asking how best to express solidarity and prevent violence. Everyday Americans were knocking on the doors of local Sikh temples they had previously ignored, asking questions and offering moral support. The bestseller lists were crammed overnight with books about Islam and the Muslim world. "In the very week when the nation suffered a grievous injury from a stateless criminal gang that identified itself by its members' religion -- as Muslims -- some Americans chose to express concern and friendship toward their Muslim neighbors," Niebuhr writes. "It makes a far more interesting story about contemporary America than I had imagined."

As one of the country's most experienced religious commentators and the grandson and great-nephew, respectively, of the legendary theologians H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr -- Gustav Niebuhr came to this moment of spontaneous cross-faith communication with an impressive historical grounding and reportorial rigor. "It is a new activity in the world, and entirely new phenomenon in our history," he writes. "It is a social good, a basis for hope, and a tendency that ought to be nurtured and cultivated."

"Beyond Tolerance" is at its best detailing acts of kindness and exploration between members of putatively competing religions. So Congregationalists in New England give their 18th-century church free of charge to some local Jewish families. And after adolescents burn down a Sikh temple in Upstate New York, the local school board president becomes a liaison between the Sikhs and the rest of the community, going so far as to travel to the "home" temple in India, where he apologizes on behalf of his New York town.

Niebuhr points to two underappreciated events in October 1965 that dramatically increased pluralism in the country that made religious freedom famous. One was Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which brought forth tens of millions of previously blocked migrants from Africa and Asia. Three weeks later the Catholic Church published "The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" as part of its Vatican II reforms, establishing for the first time that other faiths should be treated as respectable traditions with a connection to God. Genuine diversity and tolerance, not for the first time in American history, reinforced each other.

Niebuhr, who writes with an elegant, almost anguished austerity, clearly intends his cri de coeur to be a small but forceful counterargument to those many who continue to kill and divide in the name of religion. But he has no room in this discussion for another group of people who decry militant fundamentalism: atheists and agnostics. And while he clearly reveres the revolutionary secularism of the Founders, he disdains manifestations of religious liberty that lack the musty authenticity of centuries-old sects. "I have never personally had much time for people who want to start up a new religion or for those who would try to blend old ones in search of an elusive spiritual common denominator," he declares. In failing to appreciate the full expression of religious freedom, Niebuhr ignores key participants in the project he so champions.

The author's biggest and most frustrating blind spot, though, is his propensity to blame, rather than credit, President Bush for his role in shaping the tone of the debate after Sept. 11. Niebuhr is prone to go off on tangents about "insidious acronyms, like elusive WMDs" and repeatedly attempts to contrast recent interfaith gains against what is, to him, the odious foreign policy of the Bush administration. "What makes these post-9/11 actions even more significant," he writes in one of many such passages, "is how they differed from the militant rhetoric increasingly used by the American government since 9/11."

You don't have to like the outgoing president to remember that, in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, Bush went out of his way to meet with Muslim leaders, declare Islam a "religion of peace" and narrow his quarrel to the psychotic few who would pervert a great tradition. Dissent from the president's war on terror all you want ("Is that what we're all about?" Niebuhr cries), but there is no story about post-9/11 interreligious understanding in America that doesn't include Bush's positive contributions.

But leaders don't change society; private citizens, acting freely, do most of the heavy lifting. Niebuhr has made an important contribution by observing that America, through good-faith exchange between liberty-loving believers, has come a long way indeed.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company