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April 23, 2010
Oh, dear. A prominent evangelist, the son of an even-more-prominent evangelist, has just been uninvited from a prayer breakfast at the Pentagon after it was discovered that he had made some ignorant comments about Islam, calling it "a very wicked and evil" religion. This was a problem -- there are many Muslims in our military. Some of them work at the Pentagon. He elaborated -- he thinks that observant Muslims have to kill their children if they engage in premarital sex. They are slaves to their religion, he says. You couldn't practice Islam here in America, he says, because killing adulterers is illegal here. He seems unaware that millions of Americans do practice Islam here and don't kill their children or their wayward spouses.

I know Christians who are slaves to their religion, too. Religious fundamentalism of any stripe enslaves its adherents to the past, forcing them to see all the customs of their ancestral cultures as permanent, forbidding them to do what people of faith must always do: wrestle with the world as we find it in light of what we know it to have been when the sacred texts we love were written down. All of history is held in God's hands, but fundamentalism seeks to imprison God within history, powerless to do anything besides what he did thousands of years ago. God, the elderly curator of Museum Earth. God, who conceived the universe but hasn't had a new thought since.

A Christian or a Jew who followed everything in our Holy Scriptures would be a pretty violent person, too. Adulterers would be stoned by the community. Fortunetellers would be executed. So would people who cursed their parents. Men might have multiple wives. Men would have to marry their deceased brothers' wives. Slaveholding would be acceptable. Life would be absurd.

And so we don't live that way. Nobody does -- fundamentalists may think they do, but they also interpret, elevating some scriptural values over others, choosing Jesus over Leviticus in some cases and not in others. We do live within our tradition, but we live there in our own time. We acknowledge the march of history, and the reality of change. We don't assume that everything that happened in ancient times was better than what happens now, nor do we assume the reverse. We think. And we acknowledge the possibillity that we may be wrong and have to change our minds and our behavior. This is not a modern failure of nerve or a moral defeat. It is what religious people have always done with respect to the conduct of their lives.

When the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to these shores, everyone in it assumed that the conscious experience of being saved would be a universal one in the community -- that, or you would have to leave. But something happened: the children of that community, some of them, could not produce a moment in their lives when they knew for certain that they were saved. They'd been raised in their faith: they didn't have a "prodigal son" moment, one in which they knew themselves to have been lost, but now found. The rules of the community were clear: they needed to leave.

But love won out. The elders created what they called "The Halfway Covenant:" You could stay, in anticipation of a future moment in your life which would surely come. We would depend on the nurture of the community to guide you there. We wouldn't have to give you up. Because we just couldn't do it, we loved you so.

We need to let love win out more. I suppose some of our noisier pundits will seize the opportunity for a rant about how anti-prayer-breakfasts the government is. But no -- the prayer breakfast will go on, with a different speaker. There has got to be a better reason to be a Christian than that other religions are evil and wicked -- if you can't think of one, try reading your Bible less like a cookbook and more like a prayer.
Want to hear and see Mahalia Jackson singing "He's Got The Whole World"?
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