THE BLOG
01/26/2012 10:31 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Sanctum Santorum: He's Not the Only Ignorant One

In the run-up to the South Carolina primary, Rick Santorum continued his record-breaking run of irritating different segments of the American population. This time, the offended were Muslims and followers of Eastern religions. By extension, that would cover just about everyone from the farthest reaches of Asia to the west coast of Africa.

The offending statement, which contains onion-like layers of ignorance too thick to peel away here, was: "I get a kick out of folks who call for equality now, the people on the left, 'Well, equality, we want equality.' Where do you think this concept of equality comes from? It doesn't come from Islam. It doesn't come from the East and Eastern religions. Where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that's where it comes from."

My initial reaction to this classic ethnocentrism was a combination of outrage and amusement. Really, is it too much to ask that a presidential candidate in this diverse society have a rudimentary knowledge of religions other than his own, and the decency to at least pretend to respect them? As for amusement, what is there to say about a sanctimonious politician who is already famous for intolerance extolling equality in the language of in equality, especially when his own religion has demonstrated its commitment to equality with actions ranging from the Inquisition to the stubborn refusal to ordain women? The irony might be too fat a target for Stewart or Colbert; it might require an absurdist like Samuel Beckett.

Then again, maybe we should cut Santorum a little slack. While we have every right to expect more from political leaders than the rest of us, he is really no more ignorant about religion than most of his fellow citizens. Most of us know very little about other religions other than our own, and the sources of our information tend to be inadequate. I suspect Santorum's knowledge of comparative religion -- particularly the traditions of the East -- came from Catholic school teachers, priests and Vatican-approved authors.

I hear ridiculous statements about Hinduism almost daily, for instance, despite the fact that India's sages and gurus have been influencing prominent Americans for more than 200 years, from Emerson to Oprah. Most of that ignorance is expressed by well-meaning people who don't have a bigoted bone in their bodies. It even comes from scholars who teach religion at universities, because they know a lot about ancient texts but very little about how adherents of Eastern religions actually live their faiths. And it's not just minority religions about which people are ignorant. You should hear what people say about Christianity. Educated Americans who should know better sound as if all Christians were disciples of Pat Robertson.

As many commentators have noted, the U.S. is deficient in religious literacy. But education alone won't make a big enough dent unless we change the very way we think about religion. We speak about it in sweeping generalities: Buddhists believe this, Muslims believe that, Christians believe this and so forth. But it makes no more sense to discuss religion that way as it does to evaluate restaurants by their menus. When we decide where to eat, we also consider ambiance, quality of service, freshness, taste and all sorts of other factors. Well, religions are at least as complicated as restaurants.

There is, in fact, as much variation within each tradition as there is between and among them. I know Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists who have more in common with each other than any of them do with the average member of their own tradition. Every religion has its its mystics, its ritualists, its intellectuals, its devotional celebrants; it has orthodox fanatics, scriptural literalists, skeptics, doubters and free-thinking adapters; it has selfless servants and self-important hypocrites; it has ardent devotees and indifferent part-timers. We need to understand those and other differences and start thinking in those terms instead of the usual categories. Dividing us broadly into Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc., might make for neat census data, or chapter headings in comparative religion books, but in a globalized, pluralistic world, the brand names don't say enough about the actual spiritual lives of individuals.

It will no doubt take a long time to replace the current labels with more nuanced categories, but it's bound to come about as workplaces and classrooms grow ever more spiritually diverse. In the meantime, we'll just have to make the best out of a bad situation, just as Rick Santorum advised pregnant rape victims to do.