Religious tolerance, religious pluralism, and a brave new world

Ben Witherington asks, in the light of recent scholarly reevaluations of the policies of St. Constantine the Great, on his blog:

How should Americans, and perhaps especially our President approach the issue of religious tolerance? It seems clear enough to me that on the one hand, considering the drift away from our Judaeo-Christian roots of government in some respects, that we could not and should not expect to have a President like Constantine, especially in view of the Bill of Rights including freedom of religion as a moral principle of the state. On the other hand, there is no reason why we could not rightly expect to have a President who is a committed Christian, favors that religion, is happy to give tax breaks to churches and other charitable organizations, while at the same time, like Constantine, not de-funding other legitimate well established religious groups. Tolerance in this model, again, does not mean consent or agreement, it means tolerance. This is not the same thing as someone saying ‘all world religions are equal paths to God and equally legitimate’.

Think on these things.

My response, somewhat rambling and very uncertain:

There certainly is much food for thought here. I only recent read Elizabeth Digeser’s thesis concerning the policy of “religious concord” by St. Constantine and I have yet to read Peter Leithart’s book though it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for me since Christmas.

I think that there are many other issues that surround the issue of religious toleration and what that means in America. For instance, while this nation’s founding fathers were not all themselves committed Christians, they certainly could not have imagined a country like ours with such (and growing) religious diversity. If they could not (and they clearly expressed that they could not — few Americans could until fairly recent times) picture an America in which blacks and whites lived side-by-side peacefully and even (!) inter-married, they definitely could not have pictured an America in which Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and individuals with dozens of other religious affiliations do so. They were firmly entrenched in the traditions of Western Civilization with its Catholic-Protestant roots (atheism and its forerunner deism are both the product of the Western religious tradition, whether their modern adherents want to accept that or not), the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation.

The question that we encounter now is what do we do as we experience an influx of people coming from cultures who do not share such foundation concepts of Western Civilization as the separation of church and state, individualism, and so on. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian (albeit a convert from Western Christianity), I also count myself as a member of that growing population for whom such ideas are foreign ones, difficult to reconcile with our religious, philosophical, and cultural worldviews.

I certainly don’t have the answers; only the future will tell how all of this will play out as the demographics of the United States continue to change, getting further and further from the world that the founding fathers took for granted.

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