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When You Shouldn't Say What You Really Think About Other Faith Traditions

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Some recent, angry exchanges between leaders of different religious traditions have led me to consider the principles that should guide us when reacting to disagreements with other faith groups.

If I strongly disagree with a Christian or Muslim, I am free to say what I wish, of course, and there is an argument to be made that I should always say what I think. As a believing and practicing Jew, I do not hesitate to comment on, praise, criticize or analyze statements by any Jewish leader or Jewish group. Should I not be true to myself and my beliefs whenever someone representing a non-Jewish tradition says things that are contrary to my deepest moral convictions?

Well, actually, no. I suggest that there are important distinctions to be kept in mind. Specifically, I think that there are two rules to follow when deciding what is appropriate to say -- and what is not -- when commenting on the positions of other religious groups.

Rule No. 1: When a religious leader or group speaks on a matter of public policy that impacts all Americans, those who have different views and who represent other religious traditions can and should speak out.

For example, if an evangelical Protestant leaders calls for a law banning abortions, such a law will limit the rights of all. In this case, I feel free and indeed obligated to express my belief, rooted in my own religious teachings, that abortion is a difficult matter but that every woman, after prayerful consideration, should be able to make this determination for herself, without interference from the state.

Rule No. 2: When a religious leader or group speaks on an internal religious matter directly affecting only adherents of his or her faith, those representing other religious traditions should remain silent (with two exceptions noted below).

For example, if the Catholic Church announces that it is placing restrictions on politically active nuns or if a Protestant denomination announces that it refuses to ordain gay clergy, only the members of these religious communities are affected. As a religious liberal favoring equality for women and gays in both the religious and secular realms, I may find these rulings to be troubling, but I also recognize that they are not ultimately my affair.

The reason for this is that while I am an aggressive advocate for my values in the public arena, I know that voluntary religious associations are free to set the rules for their own members and to determine those rules according to their own religious standards. And I have no place in these discussions. And even when I think I may know what is right, I remind myself that humility is in order in such cases. After all, while public policy should be set by drawing on the historical, legal and cultural values of the American experience, religious policy for private groupings depends on such things as faith, interpretation of sacred texts, and the workings of religious hierarchy -- none of which I can speak to in traditions other than my own.

In addition, voluntary religious associations in a pluralistic democracy are just that: voluntary. An American Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Muslim who does not like what his religious denomination is doing is free to walk away and, if he or she is so inclined, create a competing religious body.

Whenever I am tempted to disregard my own advice here and express an opinion on what is best for Catholics or Protestants, I remind myself how uncomfortable I am when Christians speak to internal Jewish concerns. No less than others, the Jewish world is struggling mightily with issues related to the position of women and gays, but the outcome will be determined by what we Jews decide about what Torah teaches us. Christians have no more role in this debate than I have in any of theirs.

There are, it seems to me, two exceptions to this second rule. While they should be construed fairly narrowly, they are exceedingly important.

The first is that when the internal religious policies of one religious group have a direct and immediate impact on another religious group, those impacted are entitled to express their views.

Thus, while generally speaking the Catholic Church alone should determine what will be released from the Vatican archives, the Jewish community can reasonably assert that the monumental importance of the Holocaust to Jews entitles it to ask for and receive documents related to the slaughter.

The second exception to the "non-interference" rule is that if, in its internal policies, a religious group permits or mandates the violation of the fundamental human rights of its adherents, including the infliction of irreversible physical harm, then others have the obligation to protest. An example would be a religious group that sanctioned for its members the practice of female circumcision or polygamy.

This approach -- both the rules and the exceptions -- hardly solves all problems that arise. Different groups may accept the approach but define their terms in different way, and serious disagreements will remain. Nonetheless, I believe that it offers us as religious believers a framework to do what is required in interfaith relations: Be true to our principles while at the same time demonstrating humility and restraint and respecting the beliefs and values of other religious Americans.