Religious Pluralism is an American Tradition

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

July 26, 2007

Ever since 9/11, our leaders have been telling us that to win the “war on terror,” we have to win the “war of ideas.” Unfortunately since 9/11, our popularity around the world has plummeted to all-time lows. One of the defining moments in the “war of ideas” took place in the chambers of the U.S. Senate on July 12.

Did the U.S. foreign policy team notice? They should have.

Every day the Senate is in session, it opens with a prayer from a member of the clergy. July 12 was set as an historic date for America because it was to be the first time, ever, that this prayer was to be given by a Hindu priest. America, a land of growing religious diversity – with a core of various Christian denominations such as Protestants, Catholics and Evangelicals, along with growing numbers of other religious adherents including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – was set to take another step toward embracing religious pluralism.

But religious activists from the right-wing Christian group Operation Save America entered the chambers of the U.S. Senate to heckle the Hindu priest, Rajan Zed, and Hinduism, as an “abomination” because Hindus do not revere “the Lord Jesus”. All of this was broadcast on C-SPAN and YouTube for the world to see. ( ).

Although I am not a Hindu, I feel that the acts of these activists are practicing a vociferous religious intolerance, the corollary of which are the Muslim fundamentalists overseas that we see on TV chanting “death to America.” This statement on our national stage should serve as a wake-up call, as it not only seeks to change the tradition of American pluralism, but it also significantly affects our national security.

Here’s why:

In the last century, during the Cold War’s “war of ideas,” previous U.S. administrations realized that unless America faced up to racism at home and embraced the message of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the United States would not be able to truly shine our American ideals brightly enough to have the credibility to win hearts and minds across the Cold War battlefields of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

This century’s “war of ideas” is not a battle between Islam and the West. It’s a battle between religious pluralists and those who seek to impose religious dominance of one group.

We Americans have a choice to make. If we support religious pluralism through our actions at home, we can go a long way to returning to being the “shining city on the hill” that will inspire ordinary people the world over – including pious Muslims – to take America’s side in the war on terror.

But, in a diverse country like America, if we allow the efforts of one group to impose religious dominance at home – like those of Operation Save America – inside the chambers of the U.S. Senate, we will be seen by the world as a nation of bigots, we will lose the war of ideas. We then will be much easier for ordinary people around the world to hate. In a world increasingly connected by the Internet and satellite TV, the result will surely be that our national security will suffer because terrorists will have fertile ground from which to recruit.

Fortunately for America, the choice Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., made while introducing the Hindu priest on the Senate floor, was to humbly and elegantly have the hecklers removed and the prayer continued. So, what the world saw was “official” America standing against bigotry.

And fortunately, no one can question Casey’s Christian credentials. Casey graduated from Holy Cross College. Then his faith in God and commitment to the common good inspired him to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to teach fifth grade in the inner city of Philadelphia before earning his law degree from Catholic University.

I don’t know Sen. Casey, but I can bet that his actions were no accident. It seems that along the way, Sen. Casey’s own religious piety deeply imbued in him the belief that “all men were created equal,” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Our Founding Fathers created this country on the basis of religious pluralism. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have judged others’ religions by their lives, for it is from our lives and not our words that our religions must be read.”

To win the war on terror overseas, America needs more Thomas Jeffersons and more Bob Caseys at home. That is, Americans who may or may not be religiously pious, but who see the common values across religions and humanity, and who support religious pluralism.