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Why Religious Conservatives Embrace the Language of Religious War

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Religious conservatives are drawn to the language of religious war, even if no such war exists.

This is a bizarre, dangerous and troubling phenomenon. I experienced it directly on Feb. 9 when I appeared on the Sean Hannity show on the Fox News channel as part of a panel of a dozen religious leaders, all of whom, except for me, were conservatives. During the hour long show, the panel was called on to respond to interviews conducted by Mr. Hannity dealing with government funding of contraceptives.

I was not distressed when my fellow religious leaders expressed their opposition to this funding and their belief that it violated religious liberty. I disagree on both points but felt that they were legitimate points to make. What shocked me, however, was hearing the panelists loudly proclaim that the American government is waging a war against religion.

We are used to this kind of thing from politicians, and so my quarrel was not really with Mr. Hannity or his political guests. It is best to be realistic about politics and cable news; in the midst of an election season, considerations of ideology, market share, entertainment and political advantage take precedence over all else. But when it comes to respected religious leaders, I have different expectations.

And the simple fact is that the idea of a war carried out by our government against religion is utterly absurd. Religion in America is vital, dynamic and thriving as never before. Roughly 150 million Americans go to a church, synagogue or mosque for prayer every week, and our houses of worship and related organizations receive far more charitable dollars and hours of volunteer service than any other civic institution. The Hannity panelists must know this. Indeed, in chatting with them before the show, several shared with me the extraordinary work they are doing in their own communities; one told me of the 15,000 people who come to his church each Sunday!

There are, to be sure, differences of opinion among religious people on matters of public policy. This is inevitably the case, and is a blessing in every way; it could not be otherwise in a country as religiously engaged and diverse as America. But what motivates religious leaders to jump from the reality of healthy religious debate in America to the paranoid claim of a government-led war on religion?

Such a claim, I suspect, masks a deep insecurity about the commitment of their followers. Our society offers many temptations to the religious seeker, and there is no better way to mobilize the faithful than to tell them that their faith is under attack. And this approach raises questions too about the theological self-confidence of those who call the troops to battle. In my experience, proclamations of militancy are indicative of a warrior who stands weakly on the ground of his or her own belief.

I also suspect that talk of religious war is an excuse for those of extreme opinions to circumvent the need for thoughtful religious dialogue. Substantive, serious religious dialogue is salutary; it does not deny conflict but encourages it, while offering a mechanism to clarify differences and promote understanding. But if we are in a war, then such dialogue becomes secondary, if not downright gratuitous. In wartime, screaming and venting drown out serious conversation. In wartime, fighting the battle takes precedence over civility and humility.

All this talk of a war against religion saddens me because it means we have lost touch with reality. And I can't help but think that it comes from those who glory in their victimhood and who prefer a deadening of the intellect to "the reasonableness of faith."

I am no pacifist. Wars are necessary sometimes, whether wars of words or of military might. God calls on us to fight for justice and to defend what is sacred and what is dear to us. But religions don't look for wars where they don't exist, and they never thrive on military metaphors. And I worry that religious people who fall too easily into military language are doing so more to sanctify their own interests than to sanctify God.