Don't let fear of 'the other' paralyze you
Acceptance of pluralism brings about true liberty
By Tony Staley
DE PERE -- The United States is a pluralistic nation and has been almost since the first Europeans began colonizing it in the early 1600s.
Furthermore, pluralism is here to stay, one of the nation's leading theologians said last week at St. Norbert College.
If, in 72 years, the Soviet Union couldn't suppress religion with oppression, barbed wire and regulation, it can't be done, Dr. Martin Marty, a Lutheran theologian and past president of the American Academy of Religion, said at the Louis Miller Memorial Lecture.
While pluralism itself doesn't make front-page news, it is implied in the diversity of topics that do make news, Marty said.
And pluralism has spread across the country, he said, pointing to the 46 different denominations listed in the Green Bay phone directory and the celebration of Sunday Mass in 63 languages in Los Angeles.
That's good, Marty said, because "true pluralism is required for true religious liberty."
Despite the centuries-old roots of pluralism and how widespread it is, Americans still have problems when we deal with "the other" -- the person different from us, Marty said.
To illustrate the need to learn to deal with pluralism and those different from us, Marty pointed to the Muslim terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11 as people who oppose "the other" and religious liberty.
"We are 'other' to the militants in the Islamic world, the same as most people in the Islamic world are 'other' to the militants," Marty said.
Marty said there are a variety of reasons why people fear "the other":
They are different and might upset our customs;
They challenge our values and may even ask us to explain why we believe what we do;
We -- or our daughters -- may be tempted to join them;
We can't decide what we believe because there are too many options and therefore we won't commit ourselves to one thing;
Because they are different, we believe we must purify them or drive them into exile.
"There is a temptation to say that America would be stronger if we all were the same," Marty said.
That temptation has been around for centuries.
For example, he noted, nine of the 13 original colonies were founded favoring sameness enforced by law. Benjamin Franklin, he said, wanted only Quakers, Presbyterians and Episcopalians and opposed German settlers.
John Jay, in Federalist Paper Two, argued that the strength of America came from its roots in the single custom of the British, forgetting that he was of Dutch Huguenot heritage.
"The nation's founders drew on Christian and other resources," Marty said, pointing to the success of what has resulted.
While the variety of religious beliefs can trouble some people, Marty said, "I don't know who would determine a single orthodoxy." Nor is the answer to accept some watered-down compromise of beliefs that we all can agree on.
Indeed, he said, pluralism has strengthened religious belief in the United States by forcing people to think about what they believe. The result has been that Americans are church-goers whereas European churches are often nearly empty.
It's not always easy to deal with "the other," Marty said. But, as recent events have shown, we must learn who "the other" is and begin to understand them.
He cautioned that it may be impossible to build bridges with the Muslim fundamentalists behind the terrorist attacks on the United States. Rather, he said, we should seek to keep others from joining them.