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Steve McSwain

Steve McSwain

Posted: October 11, 2010 06:20 PM

"God is dead," said Nietzsche. Well, maybe somewhere, but not here, as the PBS special, God in America makes abundantly clear.

I recently interviewed the chief editorial consultant to this PBS special, airing this week, Dr. Stephen Prothero. As the distinguished professor of religion at Boston University, his research and books have been widely read and respected, and perhaps none more so than Religious Literacy. When I asked him about the point of the television series, Prothero responded, "To entertain, of course. But, more importantly, to educate on the role God has played in American history."

Given the recent survey that revealed that Atheists outperformed Protestants on their knowledge of major world religions, including Christianity, more education can only be a good thing. The cynic in me realizes that weary churchgoers might very well opt for Dancing with the Stars or The Biggest Loser this week instead of God in America -- but hopefully they'll join me in watching.

According to the PBS special, not only is God in America, but God, or belief in God, is woven into the very fabric of American culture and politics. So much so, observes Prothero, "we are no longer a country of two political parties but two political-religious parties." So, in this, the Pope must be wrong, unless his recent remarks about the marginalization of religion were meant to apply only to England or Europe. God is not becoming more marginalized in America. If anything, it is the various religions, and their followers, that are marginalizing themselves and none more so than Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The irony is this: America is religiously diverse. In Prothero's words, "In the supermarket of religion, America has a bigger store." It's the Walmart of religion. Instead of a strength, however, embraced by Americans as a distinction worth celebrating, many religious people in America are threatened by it, even react against it. But, in the words of the Hans Kung, "There will be no peace until there is peace among the religions." Nor will there be peace in America. While most Americans believe in God and regard themselves as spiritual people, my own feeling is millions of them are abandoning organized religion precisely because, instead of embracing and cultivating the diversity that is America, the major religions want to homogenize everyone and everything. It is this that causes division, even human destruction. What is supposed to bring sanity to this world is itself the cause of most insanity. It is madness.

If there's any one thing that's certain, God in America is a diverse God. And, if this experiment we affectionately call "America" is to survive, this diversity must remain. It cannot be otherwise. We've always had, in Prothero's words, "a prejudice against atheism." Yet, the atheist has a home in America. To others, God will be a Cosmic Intelligence. To still others, Messiah, or Savior, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Higher Power, and, yes, even a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist, and, perhaps now, a Tea Party Independent.

Stephen Prothero is right: "What this country needs more than anything else is religious conversation that is civil and informed." But, listen to many religious leaders, and most conversation is neither civil nor informed. To make statements, for example, as did Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, that "yoga" -- and, by implication, religions like Hinduism and Buddhism --"is a threat to Christianity," is not only hurtful, but damaging. The bigger threat to all religions, including Christianity, is the madness of such remarks.

Should religious diversity be something to fear? Not at all. Rather, it is a cause for celebration, and as a very religious person myself I see this point in America history as a momentous opportunity for dialogue, discussion and bridge-building.

 
 
 

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