Commentary, National Commentary

Editor’s Column: Is There a ‘Glimmer of Hope’ For a Religious Truce Today?

Veteran Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne’s contribution this week has an intriguing title, “We Need a Truce in Our War Over Religion. Here’s a Glimmer of Hope.”

“Houses of worship and other religious institutions play an essential role in promoting social connectedness, mutual aid and community building,” he acknowledges, and in that context he writes about a “glimmer of hope” that, in that capacity, there may be a cooling off of our current “religious wars.”

Identifying himself as a liberal Catholic, the often insightful columnist speaks highly of Pope Francis, one of my favorites, but apart from noting a “widespread concern over the rise of loneliness and decline of forces that pull communities together,” Dionne backs up his “glimmer of hope” claim with very little evidence.

In fact, if anything, more dominant is the data being reported about a sharp decline in the numbers of ordained clergy. Not only are the numbers down, but even more so are the numbers of those who are dropping out of ministries within five years of ordination. Church attendance has been up slightly through the pandemic (when a lot of people started going to church more often because they could do it from their homes virtually), but that is a far from certain trend.  

Also, the role of the most strident identifying with the so-called evangelical branch of Protestant Christianity has become more pronounced around the issues of abortion, LGBT rights and gender identity.

Any talk of a “truce” in this context would have to be premised on an essential, agreed upon focus that keeps in place essential tenets of faith for conflicting religious traditions. This same debate was very animated in the 1950s when the “ecumenical” movement was in its heyday. It led to many fruitful conversations and even some church mergers. An example was that of the Congregational and Evangelical and Reformed denominations that came together despite coming out of quite different backgrounds to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).

But the largely destructive postmodernist current of thought switched the focus from the things that united to those that divided us, and it smashed the spirit of ecumenicism in the mid to late 1960s. As a seminarian myself, who aligned with the UCC during that period, I watched as the 1970s decade of radical self-centeredness and hedonism devolved into a rising Reagan revolution and a radical religious right, whose continued spread is bedeviling us to this day.

In those days, the relatively innocent hedonism of the Woodstock counterculture (“peace and love”) became radicalized (“sex, drugs and rock and roll”) into the political philosophy of Ayn Rand and others to become mantras for atomized and alienated activism. Meanwhile, elements of a softer, more humanist approach to the social changes of that decade were left incapable of reacting to the trends that were growing on the political right, including among Christian radicals.

It was the decade of the rise of domestic terrorism, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Jonestown massacre and the assassination of Harvey Milk (those two earth shaking. paradigm shifting events emanating out of San Francisco coming within two weeks of each other), and, also domestically, an explosion in assaults on the personal health and well being of an entire generation of young people, triggering an AIDS pandemic that cost over 600,000 lives before a treatment to forestall automatic death could be found.

The ecumenical movement was completely destroyed in this context, with no serious effort to revive it since, due in large part to the fact that its original proponents were left with no idea of what had happened.

But today, if there is a “glimmer,” it can be found in a simple starting point that faith should not exclude, but include persons who are different from one another. The New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan delivers just such a basic and profound message. Such is the cornerstone of the teaching and life of that Jewish reformer known as Jesus.

Those who assert that true faith must separate us, that there is only one path to salvation, are espousing a falsehood. Our starting point may be as simple as just that.