Is it enough to be tolerant, or should people of faith make more of an effort to reach out to those who follow other religions? Baptist leaders responded to that question, which was prompted by a new Gallup poll, one of the first major studies of how Muslims fit into Western societies since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
When it comes to relations among people of different religious faiths, the study found, Americans are more likely than Europeans to be “integrated.” But it also found that in America as well as in Europe, many non-Muslims misunderstand the attitudes of Muslims who live in their country.
The study, which included about 30,000 people in 27 countries, found that in most Western countries, a majority of Muslims consider themselves patriotic and tolerant, and they do not approve of violence. Muslims tend not to think of their religion as something that keeps them from fitting in with the society around them or that interferes with loyalty to their adopted country. They consider unemployment and poverty as much greater problems than faith differences in tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
While this contrast in the way Muslims think and the way non-Muslims perceive them does exist in the United States, it is not as pronounced as in Western European countries. The study speculated that the difference may be partly due to the United States’ long history as a nation of immigrants, while in Western European nations, immigration is more recent, and almost all immigrants are Muslims.
Another factor, the study suggested, may be that more people in the United States than in Western European countries say that religion is important in their lives, so they may have a better understanding of how someone can be both religious and patriotic.
The study classified as “integrated” people who are not just tolerant of other faiths but who actively seek to learn about them. “Integrated” people believe that most faiths make a positive contribution to society. “Integrated” people respect people of other faiths and believe that people of other faiths respect them.
In the United States, the study said, 33 percent of people are integrated. That compares with 20 percent in the United Kingdom, 22 percent in France and 13 percent in Germany.
The majority of people in the United States – 52 percent – fall into the category the study calls “tolerant.” It defines tolerant people as those with a “live and let live” attitude toward people of other faiths. Tolerant people think they respect those of other faiths but are not likely to try to learn more about them or learn anything from them. That 52 percent in the United States compares with 45 percent in the United Kingdom, 49 percent in France and 49 percent in Germany.
The final category in the survey was “isolated,” defined as people who are not members of any particular faith and don’t want to know about other perspectives.
Several Baptist leaders said that tolerance alone will not lead to the real interfaith integration that America needs. They also questioned the figures that say that 85 percent of Americans consider themselves either integrated or tolerant.
Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said that he doubts the figures would hold up, at least in some southern states. “In my opinion, real integration would require much more than a ‘live and let live’ attitude,” he said. “I suspect that most evangelicals think they have little or nothing to learn from Muslims. I am worried that concerted efforts to demonize and scapegoat Muslims since 9-11 will make it difficult to maintain even a tolerant attitude toward Muslims within the broad evangelical community. Too many people have a vested interest – either politically, financially or theologically – in promoting a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity.”
In Columbia, Mo., John Baker, pastor of First Baptist Church, said that he suspects that most Americans who describe themselves as tolerant mean it in the sense of “endurance” or “putting up with” rather than real acceptance and movement toward integration. “When we don’t know our immigrant or ‘different’ neighbors,” he said, “our fears and misconceptions rule us. It’s fair to ask of the disquiet within us at times, ‘Is it of them, or is it of us?’ Meaning, are our fears grounded, or are we just fearful from our own lack of knowledge and understanding?”
Carol Richardson, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., said that tolerance is a first step, but “we as Christ-followers must go beyond this somewhat passive way to co-exist with one another and enter into the lives of the other through efforts at genuine friendship, learning about the other, working in partnership with the other, and defending the other against injustices.”
A. Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, said that “live and let live” tolerance “does not rise to Jesus’ standard of ‘loving my neighbor as I love myself.’ We do not choose our neighbors, but we are nonetheless called to live and work for their well being as the expression of love. As neighbors in a common society, that means at least ensuring the full rights and participation of the other in civil society.
“But beyond that,” Medley said, “it means to reach out to the other. In today’s context, we need to recall that the despised Samaritan, whom Jesus lifted up as the example of what it means to ‘neighbor’ another, was despised precisely because of his religion. As neighbors, we can learn from the noblest examples of each other even though we do not share a common faith.”
What can Christians and their churches do?
“I think it is imperative for all people of faith and good will to promote understanding between people of different faiths and to participate in dialogue with Muslims in particular,” said Prescott. “We need to highlight the values and convictions that we share in common to reduce hostility and promote peace.”
Baker suggested that churches and other religious organizations offer safe places for people of differing religions and cultures to meet and mingle. Church members should also take advantage of opportunities when other faiths have open houses or festivals and invite the public. “It’s easier to trust people when you’ve gotten to know them,” he said.
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.