The United States is currently in uncharted waters, both political and religious. As Harvard comparative religion professor Diana L. Eck noted, “Historians tells us that America has always been a land of many religions, and that is true. … The immigrants of the last three decades, however, have expanded the diversity of our religious life dramatically, exponentially.” Eck connects the dramatic increase in religious diversity since the 1970s with the conscious removal of explicitly racist immigration policies from US law during the Johnson administration. The failure to assist Jews attempting to flee the horrors of Nazi Germany and the success of the civil rights movement both caused calls for less racially discriminating immigration laws, and subsequently, the United States saw the massive surge in religious diversity that Eck speaks of.
Religious diversity has always been an American value, but this idea has moved from diversity amongst different primarily Christian groups to a much broader and more visible diversity in the last few decades, due both to fairer immigration policies and the lessening of explicitly Christian influences over national power structures. In the midst of these changes, Americans have had to re-affirm our commitment to religious diversity in a society that is becoming religiously diverse in increasingly tangible ways. And, I would argue, we haven’t done this particularly well at the political level.
We saw this on display at the confirmation hearing for recently confirmed 7th circuit Court of Appeals judge Amy Coney Barrett, when she was asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) if she were an “orthodox Catholic,” and objecting that she did not have enough experience for the post she was nominated for. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) put the point more starkly, saying to Barrett that “the [Catholic] dogma lives loudly within you.” This line of questioning was predictably critiqued by Republicans of the same Senate panel, all indicating that Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with others holding deep convictions that differ from their own—especially when those are religious beliefs and especially when those holding them are placed in civil leadership.
I believe this was also the case back in June when Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the nomination of Russell Vought to the office of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders infamously questioned Vought’s fitness for public office because of Vought’s belief that “[Muslims] do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned,” as expressed on Vought’s personal blog. For Sanders, despite Vought’s insistence that his beliefs would not impact how he interacted with Muslims or went about his job, his belief that salvation comes exclusively through Christ made Vought unfit to hold public office. Beyond this, according to Sanders, Vought is “Islamophobic,” expressing “racism and bigotry,” and holds views that are “simply unacceptable.” Vought’s views are not a fringe belief or strange private opinion, but the view of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout history.
Sanders believes that the Trump administration has created a crisis in which questions of interreligious interactions must be treated especially delicately. I am inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless, forcing individuals to adjust their religious beliefs to cultural expectations accomplishes the opposite of his intended effect. It effectively creates a new state church, one of a generic, inoffensive, say-nothing civil religion built upon the fear that two people holding differing beliefs will lead to persecution and violence. American society needs a better model for dealing with differing religious opinions in the public sphere. I believe a good starting point for developing this model is found in the work of John Wesley, the famed preacher-theologian and founder of the Methodist movement.