The third McDonald Conference on Evangelical Theology began Friday night (May 6) with a keynote speech by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton University professor of sociology and the director of the Princeton Center for the Study of Religion. Wuthnow has studied religion from the perspective of many disciplines, including economics, politics, arts, and psychology, and has written many books, including 1991’s “Acts of Compassion,” for which he received a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Responding to his speech on Friday was Ronald F. Thiemann, a professor of theology and religion and society at Harvard Divinity School.
Although Wuthnow’s talk was titled “Evangelicals and the Challenge of Religious Diversity,” he actually addressed the topic more broadly, examining the conflicted relationship Americans in general – and evangelicals in particular – have regarding the tension between their own views as Christians and their tolerance for increasingly visible faiths such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
His primary example of such ambivalence came from the nation’s most visible evangelical, President Bush. Wuthnow recalled that in his televised address after the attacks of 9/11, Bush spoke directly to the Muslims in the audience, saying, “We respect your faith,” and adding that intolerance toward Muslims “will not stand.” Wuthnow contrasted this unequivocal comment with a 1994 interview in which Bush told a story about once pondering the question of heaven’s inclusiveness for people of all religions.
Wuthnow cited a few statistics, culled from surveys taken by US News, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and his own 2003 poll of more than 2,900 adults. The finding that 71 percent of Americans believe Christians have a duty to be tolerant of other religious faiths and “leave them alone,” said Wuthnow, indicates that tolerance is “a mark of citizenship – even a mark of Christian citizenship.” He noted, however, that “a large majority of Americans are schooled in the Christian tradition’s historic teaching about Christianity being the only hope of divine salvation”; an education, he suggested, that leads nearly half of American adults to agree with the statement that “Christianity is the only way to have a true personal relationship with God,” and almost two-thirds to believe that public schools should “teach children the Ten Commandments.”
“Like other simmering tensions,” Wuthnow contended, the tension these views create will be “markedly strained as we become a more diverse nation and gain greater awareness of that diversity.” Through its Christianity, he said, the nation as a whole has a “distinctive sense of calling, destiny, and historic privilege” that cannot be understood without “paying attention to the ways in which Americans … have viewed those outside the Christian arena.” How people think about their own faith, he maintained, “is closely tied to their views of other faiths, and these views together tell us what kind of people we should be.”
Streamlining a taxonomy developed by renowned scholar Martin E. Marty, Wuthnow grouped Christians in this country loosely as (1) spiritual shoppers, who make up “25 to 30 percent of the American public” and dabble in philosophies and practices such as Zen Buddhism, meditation, gestalt therapy, and kundalini yoga but “do not engage very seriously with the leaders and followers of other world religions”; (2) Christian inclusivists, who “take the Christian tradition seriously but also accept the validity of other religions and feel it is important to learn from them” and who, at 35 to 40 percent of the American public are perhaps “the most significant and most interesting”; and (3) Christian exclusivists, who comprise about a quarter of the population and are most likely evangelicals. Christian exclusivists, he maintained, “believe that only Christians are saved and that the Bible is the unique revelation of divine truth.” Such worshippers, according to Wuthnow, practice a kind of “polite avoidance” vis-a-vis various religions of their friends and neighbors.
In each case, he added, it will take what he called “cultural work” to reconcile Americans’ identities as Christians with the growing presence of non-Christians. “One would think that churches, especially in religiously diverse neighborhoods,” he said, “might be leading the way in helping to think more explicitly and intentionally about religious diversity. They are not.” Instead, programs that are making the most headway toward true religious understanding are grassroots efforts like the United Religions Initiative, which assists local groups in get-togethers meant to build trust and mutual consideration, and God’s Love We Deliver, a New York City – based soup kitchen that invites people of all religions to participate. “Peeling potatoes and chopping carrots,” Wuthnow said, paraphrasing author Courtney Bender, who wrote extensively about the organization in her book “Heaven’s Kitchen,” “provided occasions for people to share their stories, raise questions, and supply messages about their spiritual journeys.”
Wuthnow concluded on a hopeful note: “Assertions about respect will ring untrue unless there is also understanding. This is what Americans who belong to religions other than Christianity say they want most. Not tolerance, but understanding. And they do not want Christians to be any less Christian than they were, only to become better Christians, more thoughtful, truer to the teachings of Jesus.” This, he suggested, is “the path to humility and love, to mercy and forgiveness.”
In his response, though Ronald Thiemann briefly touched on the frailties of typologies such as the one Wuthnow used to divide Christians into three main categories, he agreed that “Whatever American Christians may believe about the religious ‘other’ they behave in ways that discourage face-to-face human encounters that are the necessary condition for mutual understanding.” He added to Wuthnow’s tolerance-promoting examples the progressive social organization Tikkun and the social movement Call to Renewal, which is “dedicated to the elimination of poverty in America,” but pointed out that such efforts, sadly, are “few and far between.”
A lively question-and-answer period addressed such topics as why Americans seem to prefer avoidance, how people end up in one category of Christian rather than another, and whether the statistics cited by Wuthnow took into account racial and ethnic identities. Both men suggested that grassroots efforts at understanding may be aided “top-down” by the worldwide Pentecostal movement, and that, perhaps most encouragingly, as Wuthnow put it, “an absolute mix of religions doesn’t mean anyone has to give up what they believe.”