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.
Learning Tolerance from John Wesley
John Wesley lived in the bridge between two times: the long religious tumult of the Protestant Reformation behind him and the optimism regarding religious freedom that accompanied the Enlightenment. He was born 186 years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, 144 years after Calvin published his final edition of TheInstitutes of the Christian Religion, and was alive to see the settling and eventual achievement of national independence by the American colonies. Wesley ministered to a Europe that was only just accepting that the ecclesial fractures caused by the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t ever completely heal. Luther hoped that Protestant and Catholic churches would eventually reunite; Wesley lived in a time that knew this would never be the case.
Wesley was Europe’s minister as it dealt with a new and pluralistic type of society. An unexpected outcome of the Reformation was the decline of the official state church. His native England had passed the Toleration Act in 1689, 14 years before his birth. This act gave legal protection to Protestant worship expressions that weren’t part of the Anglican church, effectively “legalizing” other denominations in England. Wesley grew up in an England experiencing a kind of limited religious pluralism for the first time in its history. For this reason, the proper response to and management of religious diversity was a recurring theme in Wesley’s sermons. By 1750, Wesley, a devout Anglican, had drawn accusations that his preaching movement was beginning to form yet another denomination. Realizing that his followers were beginning to look and act substantially different from other Anglicans, Wesley preached two particularly noteworthy sermons on the subject of religious diversity that year.
The first was entitled “A Caution Against Bigotry.” Wesley was preaching from Mark 9:38–39, in which Christ rebukes the disciples for preventing a man they didn’t know from casting out demons. Wesley sermonizes poignantly on the meaning of the disciple’s objection that the man “followeth not us,” pointing out that God often chooses to work through people who worship, think, and act differently than ourselves, and that we should not begrudge God for doing so. Even “a church we may account to be in many respects antiscriptural and antichristian: a church we believe to be utterly false and erroneous in her doctrines” may be a church that God chooses to work through. Christians must accept this fact, claims Wesley, or at the very least not hinder God’s work through people that “followeth not us.”
The second and more famous was the provocatively titled “Catholic Spirit.” The title may be something of a play on words. “Catholic,” especially with a lower-case “c,” is simply an adjective meaning “universal” or “unified.” Wesley was significantly more sympathetic to Roman Catholicism than most of his contemporaries, who typically didn’t believe the Roman Catholic Church to be a legitimate church. The primary meaning of the title was “catholic” in the first sense of universal and united, but Wesley may have been making a significant claim with his choice of wording.
“Catholic Spirit” deals with the “peculiar love which we owe to those that love God.” Wesley claims that this “peculiar love” is due even to those who differ in “opinion or modes of worship.” Christians are not to concern themselves, he claims, with the doctrinal opinions or worship preferences of others, who also are following their consciences on how best to serve God. Christians should neither begrudge those who believe and practice differently than them nor seek to impose on them. In this view of Christian love, “Catholic Spirit” makes largely the same point as “A Caution Against Bigotry,” though in greater.
“Catholic Spirit” goes on to discuss how unity and diversity can coexist. Regarding religious freedom, Wesley cautions that “there is scarce any expression that is so grossly misunderstood and more dangerously misapplied than this.” He gives cautions of what this “catholic spirit” is not. “A catholic spirit is not … an indifference to all opinions.” This spirit of unity in the midst of diversity means for Wesley that actual differences of opinion can and should exist. “This unsettledness of thought, this ‘being driven to and fro, and tossed about by every wind of doctrine’ is not a blessing, but a great curse,” he says, quoting from Ephesians 4:14. “[A person with a catholic spirit] does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend the two into one.” These two related concerns underscore for Wesley the necessary conditions for a people to be both unified and diverse: actual diversity must be both respected and allowed.
One might rightfully question the relevance of Wesley’s thoughts on religious diversity, given that he was writing within a generally Christian framework about showing love to Christians who think differently than us. Does this mean that Wesley’s sermons lack relevance to our multi-religious culture? I don’t believe so, especially if Wesley was being deliberately provocative with his use of the word “Catholic.” For Wesley’s original audience, Roman Catholicism was a different religion than Christianity. If Wesley was encouraging his hearers to extend common love, courtesy, and respect to Roman Catholics, he was, in their ears, encouraging them to show these things to followers of a different religion. But even if Wesley was specifically speaking about theological and doxological diversity among Christian groups, his suggestions are still of immense help to 21st century America.
Diversity, Not Indifference
Sermons like “A Caution Against Bigotry” and “Catholic Spirit” demonstrate Wesley’s advice to a culture experiencing profound changes. Wesley is a bridge between the old world of state churches and official religions and the religious tolerance through disestablishment that the United States and Europe know today. Wesley was trying to deal with a profoundly difficult problem: how to manage personal religious liberty in a pluralistic society. How does the belief system of one person affect his or her neighbor, and how should society handle potential conflicts? This was one of the questions that the great preacher-theologian sought to answer.
Our situation holds much in common with Wesley. We too live in a society that’s only recently begun to value religious diversity, and we too are struggling to understand how to adapt. The concept of the United States as a “Christian Nation” emerged around the same time that these more liberal immigration laws began to allow larger numbers of non-Christians into the country, and represents one kind of response that has been too common in more conservative circles: the denial that diversity exists and is important to our society. To these people, Wesley may well have re-preached his “Caution Against Bigotry,” which indirectly challenges the biblical foundations of the concept of a state church. Wesley claimed that rejecting anyone who “followeth us not” is rejecting God’s ability to work through whomever God chooses. This troubling idea is a pervasive one in American culture, but I am more concerned with new threats to religious liberty from a different direction.
More liberal wings of our contemporary American society have increasingly fallen into a trap Wesley warned us about in “Catholic Spirit:” the attempt to manage religious harmony by having what he would call “an indifference to all opinions.” Wesley would likely accuse us of “vainly endeavor[ing] to blend [multiple opinions] into one.” Religious liberty is not served by pretending that real, significant differences do not exist. If we blend our opinions into one or water them down into the barest minimum that all people can agree to (if such a minimum even exists), we aren’t serving religious liberty at all. We are, in fact, doing the opposite: we run the risk of culturally outlawing any religious practice outside of a certain civil religion formed out of the nation’s general religious sentiments.
Wesley’s charge not to exhibit either “an indifference to all opinions” or to “vainly endeavor” to try and take our different religious beliefs and convictions and “blend them into one” has gained a new urgency in 2017. These impulses are, according to Wesley, “a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend” to religious diversity. When Sanders suggested that Vought’s personal religious convictions made him “not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” he was challenging one of the most basic tenets of American society: the right of each person to hold private religious beliefs.
I agree with Vought that Muslims do not fully know God because they have rejected God’s self-revelation in Christ. My Muslim friend believes that I don’t know God because I have rejected God’s revelation to the prophet Mohammad. I’ve given him a New Testament, and he’s given me a Qur‛an. Sometimes we talk about our religious beliefs. More often we play board games and talk about school. Differing religious convictions doesn’t mean an inability to exist peacefully together. Comments like Sanders’ or, more recently, like Senator Dianne Feinstein’s claim that Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge nominee Amy Coney Barrett was unfit for office because “[Catholic] dogma lives loudly within [her],” suggest that my friend and I cannot peacefully coexist. Experience and Wesley say otherwise.
In this “New Religious America,” we must, as Wesley advised, enlarge our hearts “toward all mankind, those [we] know and those [we] do not.” We must “embrace with strong and cordial affection neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love.” As Wesley taught us, peaceful coexistence among differing religious groups is entirely possible and beneficial for everyone. For Wesley’s vision to be realized, however, actual difference of opinion must be allowed, even celebrated. Let us not “vainly endeavor” to mix many different views into one, but learn to accept, celebrate, and find meaningful common ground despite our religious differences.
Jake Raabe is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. He is a contributor at The Baptist Standard and Think Christian, as well as the co-author of Divine Providence: A Conversation.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more