Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the National Prayer Breakfast, President Bush encouraged tolerance. “For millions of Americans, the practice of tolerance is a command of faith,” he said.
“For millions of Americans, the practice of tolerance is a command of faith,” he said.
In his 10-minute speech, Bush said, “Every religion is welcomed in our country; all are practiced here. Many of our good citizens profess no religion at all. Our country has never had an official faith.”
Bush told about 2,500 people at the breakfast that faith provides Americans with assurance, gives us a “moral design,” calls us to love our neighbors and tells us about good and evil.
“Faith teaches humility, and with it, tolerance,” Bush said.
“When our country was attacked, Americans did not respond with bigotry,” he said. “People from other countries and cultures have been treated with respect. And this is one victory in the war against terror.”
While Bush may have claimed victory over intolerance, many conservative American religious leaders oppose tolerance and have criticized the president for his efforts.
Others have shied away from Bush’s commitment to tolerance. The Southern Baptist Convention’s news service, Baptist Press, omitted Bush’s reference to the phrase “the practice of tolerance.” It also failed to cover his remarks that every faith expression was welcomed in the United States and that the nation had no “official faith.”
Religious conservatives interpret the word tolerance as moral relativism. They believe tolerance restricts their evangelistic efforts and restrains their demands for dogmatic orthodoxy.
However, few religious conservatives have disclosed their real beliefs about tolerance as clearly as did a Southern Baptist leader.
“Scripture clearly exposes the fallacy of religious tolerance,” proclaimed Pat Pajak, speaking in chapel at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., last fall.
In his sermon, he warned seminarians about the “tolerance trap,” which he identified with Satan.
Pajak said the tolerance trap was a “satanic ploy to diminish the depravity of sin,” a “satanic plot to dismantle the doctrines of scripture,” and a “satanic plan to dismiss the demands of salvation.”
Citing biblical references to justify his three points, Pajak said, “We are the generation of evangelical believers, who are the last bastion to hold forth doctrinal purity, biblical truth.”
Pajak’s perspective disclosed the deeply embedded opposition to the practice of tolerance within Christian fundamentalism. Tolerance, after all, is a conspiratorial trap set by Satan. Thus, any one advocating tolerance is an ally of the prince of darkness, including presumably Bush.
Such a stark worldview offers no common ground. The world is divided between good and evil, “our” side and the other side, true believers and the apostates. With no common ground, conversation and cooperation are impossible.
This worldview also includes an apocalyptic dimension. These fundamentalists see themselves as the final remnant protecting real Christianity. Their seminary students are the last Christian soldiers.
Some fundamentalists do call for tolerance—tolerance for their doctrines and practices. They claim society has become intolerant to their ways. Some even assert that they are being persecuted for their beliefs.
Ironically, they are unwilling to extend the same tolerance to others that they want for themselves.
Bush should continue to speak to “the practice of tolerance.” It should be a constant refrain in his speeches.
For faith is more than mental assent to a set of belief statements. It’s more than signing a piece of paper or memorizing passages from holy texts. Real faith must be practiced, lived out. The living of faith will show the world the lack of faith among the intolerant. Through practice, we will create a more compassionate world.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.