Sunday, December 12, 2004  story:PUB_DESC

PRAIRIE VOICES : Religion and politics
Growing influence of fundamentalism in world means things may get worse before they get better, UND professor says

President George Bush is a born-again Christian. In this interview, Weinstein talks about the influence of fundamentalism and extreme religions on politics.


Can the history of religion tell us anything about religion's role in President Bush's reelection bid?

No religion is just one thing. Every religion has a wide range of denominations that form a spectrum from the right to the left. Orthodox Judaism, for example, is right wing pretty conservative. But there also are "conservative", "reform" and "reconstructionist," each further to the left than the other.

Islam has a similar range. The Muslims we hear about when we talk about terrorists are far right. Christianity ranges from the more conservative evangelical Protestants to more liberal groups such as Episcopalians, to even more liberal groups than that.

The history of the Western world is, to a large extent, the history of religious warfare. There were Crusades between Christians and Moslems and in the 16th and 17th centuries, lots of violence between Protestant denominations. There also were great battles in England about the power of the church. The whole modern democratic notion of tolerance, of the acceptance of religious difference, comes out of this practical need to get religions to stop killing each other. Much of the warfare in the world has been between religious denominations or justified by religious belief.

Are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan religion-based?

Some people would say they are about freedom, but that is a very ambiguous concept. What freedom means is hard to understand, particularly when people try to preserve our freedom by taking away our civil rights.

A lot of Muslims see our presence in Iraq as a religious war. When President Bush first talked of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, he specifically used the term crusade, which refers to Christians and Muslims fighting one another.

Of course, it is hard to completely separate religious principles from political principles. Is equality a religious principle or political principle? Is individuality a religious notion or political notion?

There is a lot of talk about the clash of cultures. I think this is a dangerous notion. There is no clash of cultures as the pundits mean it. The vast majority of Muslims in the world share the same fundamental principles as the vast amount of Jews and Christians: tolerance of other religions.

What we see in the Middle East in the past 10 to 20 years is an increase in extremism, and what we see in the United States now is an increase in extremism.

We have an extremist religious government right now. George W. Bush is the most extreme religious leader that we've ever had. Americans are being divided in a particular way, perhaps as they never have been before.

The whole debate about the pledge of allegiance, for example, and taking "under God" out of the pledge is a false debate. "Under God" was put in the pledge during the McCarthy era, when people wanted to weed out Communists. It was believed that Communists were atheist and wouldn't say "under God," so if you stuck it in the pledge of allegiance, it would expose the Communists. So, "under God" was put in the pledge of allegiance at a time when our civil liberties were also being threatened.

Where is this extreme religion trend leading?

It is hard to know, but I think it will get worse before it gets better. Things will become more uncomfortable in our society, and there will be a divide.

Hopefully, America will resolve this problem democratically with discussion and debate and without extreme violence. Unfortunately, a lot of major American movements were not resolved until there was violence. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was not successful until the protests were met with violence. We have to get through a lot of ugliness before we can get to the other side.

A problem is that Bush is responding to this new election by getting rid of all of the people in his administration who disagree with him. When you are surrounded by people who agree with you all of time, you become more extreme.

Define the line between church and state.

John Locke said that the government has no place making decisions in matters of conscience, meaning the government can't force us to believe a certain way. Anything that is a matter of conscience probably is a matter of separation of church and state. But this is difficult because some of our religious principles tell us that we are not supposed to kill, and thus we want to have laws against killing.

Religious principles tell us we should be charitable and thus ought to have laws to help people. But really, there is only a small section of ambiguous issues. Take, for example, prayer in school. There are a lot of conservatives who want this, but my response is to ask: Are you comfortable with students kneeling and facing east once a day to pray? To pray silently with your eyes closed is Christian. Jews and Moslems don't pray this way. If you're not comfortable with that, then it means you don't really want people to simply pray. What you want is for them to become Christian.

Part of democracy is the right to be immoral. Democracy includes the right to be wrong. It's not a political structure geared toward truth but one that supports freedom and equal participation in governance. It may be immoral to commit adultery, but it is legal. In fact, most of the Ten Commandments are legal. And you certainly don't pick a presidential candidate because he is the most devout, the best representative of your religion. That's what they do in Iran. Isn't that what we're trying to get them to change?

How does gay marriage, an election issue, fit with these moral or political issues?

Gay marriage is on the edge of being legal. It will happen eventually. I remember hearing a National Public Radio interview with a woman in south Boston, a racist neighborhood in the 1960s, recalling that when they were integrating schools, she was among the parents who were throwing rocks at the children. At one point, she recalls screaming a racial slur.

While recounting that story, she started to cry. She said to the interviewer, "I don't know why I said that. I'm not that kind of person." I found that to be a very powerful moment.

When the issue of gay marriage comes up in discussion in 20 or 30 years, we are going to look at this vote against it and be as humiliated as this woman was about her racial slur 40 years ago. Gay rights are inevitable. It is the next step in freedom. It is the next step in equality, and, in reality, the only reasons why people oppose gay rights are religious.

What about the "slippery slope" prediction?

The slippery slope is a logical fallacy a fallacy that says when you start with an action, you can't stop. That doing more and more is inevitable. But because we are human beings, we can choose to stop when we want to. The slippery slope is one of the most commonly used arguments, but it is bad reasoning.

Again, the gay marriage thing is, ultimately, about religion. It is also about people's fear of losing control of others. People are afraid of things they don't understand.

Collectively, North Dakotans are incredibly afraid of difference. For example, North Dakotans have such profound guilt about the way that Native Americans have been treated that they respond with hatred and knee-jerk reactions to casinos and the UND Fighting Sioux logo issue to mask that guilt.

People are afraid of difference because it is uncomfortable to have your way of life challenged. They see differences as a threat as opposed to opportunity the richness and tapestry of life. What it means to be a human being is to experience new things, to learn, to gain wisdom and to make the world a better place. This only can happen in an environment of difference. A world of homogeneity is a stagnant environment in which human beings are at their worst, and not at their best.

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