The Strength and Pitfalls of Religious Conviction
In our pluralistic society, tension persists between tolerance and a strongly held denominational view
With God on Our Side:
The Rise of the Religious Right in America
By William Martin
417 pp., $27.50
Behind the Stained Glass Window: Money Dynamics in the Church
By John and Sylvia Ronsvalle
384 pp., $24.99
Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit
Editors Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky
140 pp., 19.95
Three new books, while striking out in different directions, offer insights on the state of religion in our culture. The most arresting common thread is tolerance - or the lack of it - and the irony that while Christians preach the gospel of brotherly love, some of them can display a dazzling, even deadly self-righteousness.
Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit is a collection of essays and sermons on the topic, while Behind the Stained Glass Window is a scholarly study about the role of money in churches. With God on Our Side was written for the general reader, as a companion volume to a PBS series on the rise of the Religious Right.
As intimated in the title of the last book, who is more sure of themselves than those who think they "have God on their side?" The others are insiders' texts, practically trade books, aimed at ministers, pastors, priests, and the deeply involved lay person.
Disparate as they may be, all have something to say about the state of our convictions. In the introduction to "Removing Anti-Judaism," Howard Clark Lee writes, "We stand at a time when interreligious conflicts are mounting across the world, while bigotry is capturing the minds of young people in many places."
In his epilogue to "With God on Our Side," William Martin writes, "The level of religious conflict appears to be rising, and the historically unprecedented extent of religious freedom [in the United States] may be in some danger."
While those writers suggest intolerance is rising, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, authors of "Behind the Stained Glass Window," see another dynamic.
"The real danger to the church may be that it has become lukewarm from within," they write. Their book is a thorough analysis of why church contributions have declined, and in the catalog of causes, the temperature issue is not trivial. Indeed, their research shows that most pastors think "congregations do not have a clear overarching vision with which to challenge their members to improve their stewardship."
Apparently the Christly balance between conviction and meekness is harder than it looks. Err on the side of conviction, and you drift into intolerance. Err on the side of meekness and you drift into moral relativism.
While the Ronsvalles report that evangelicals are also seeing a decline in contributions, their ability to articulate a sense of mission is undeniable. It is a key to their success, according to Martin, whose introduction to "With God on Our Side," is a quick historical sketch of religious attitudes from colonial days to the early part of the next century.
His book opens with Billy Graham in the 1940s, and the remainder documents the growing popularity and influence of conservative Christians through the next 50 years.
Martin also covers the theological tenets that underpin the development of the religious right. Separatism is one of them: "The distinctive trait that repeatedly moves fundamentalists to withdraw from those deemed insufficiently pure in heart and mind, bolsters confidence in one's special capacity to see and follow the proper path."
Early on, those who wished to harness the convictions of this growing movement realized they had to counter this impulse. When Jerry Falwell announced that the Moral Majority was a political organization that would welcome all faiths into its ranks, there was a firestorm of opposition.
'Many, many pastors across the country in the evangelical/fundamentalist camp shuddered to think of sitting at the same table with a Roman Catholic or a Jew or, God forbid, a Mormon," Falwell recalls.
He replied, "It is not a violation of your convictions, nor does it displease the Lord, for you to work with people who don't agree with you theologically, if in doing so you improve your country, improve your society, help families, and accomplish things collectively that you could not have accomplished apart from each other."
If theological conviction was key to the rise of the religious right, this tempering enabled its adherents to enter the political arena.
While ABC exit polls showed that the religious right could not put Bob Dole over the top in the most recent election, its strength is growing. Martin's book demonstrates that you cannot understand the politics of the last 50 years unless you understand something about the dynamics of this movement. Only then will you understand the full import of shorthand phrases like "family values" that Dole and others have used to woo this constituency.
Martin has gone to great lengths to be fair, thorough, and dispassionate, but his epilogue sounds a warning. "We cannot separate religion and politics," he writes. "The question is how they are to be related in such a way as to maintain the pluralism that has served us so well. The core of that pluralism is not the dogma that all opinions are equally valid, but the conviction that civility and the public peace are important, that respect for minorities and their opinions is a crucial element of a democratic society, and that, however persuaded I am of the rightness of my position, I may still, after all, be wrong."
In some ways, "Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit" offers the most stimulating counterpoint to Martin's book. Here, the writers strive to divest Christian discourse of all that might offend. In the foreword, "The Language of Religion," Irvin J. Borowsky writes, "Millions of Jews in Europe have been harassed, been forced to leave their homelands, and been murdered when the derogatory references about Jews in the New Testament were exploited by purveyors of hate.
"In these references, all Jewry is spoken of as one, and collectively, they are blamed for the death of Jesus. Jews from ancient times to the present are damned in prose that virtually defames and decries all Jews." The essays in the book focus on the theological errors in this position, while the ser- mons show how the topic might be addressed.
Curiously, the essays wind around again to the mission and purpose of the church and the need for tolerance.
"Finally," writes Harry James Cargas, in one of the essays, "attempts by Christians to convert Jews to their faith must not only be abandoned but also discouraged by the preachers in the churches. Behind every missionary attempt is the usually unstated belief that we have the total truth; you have almost none. The energy I use to convert a Jew would be better spent in perfecting my own spiritual life. "
The Ronsvalles' research shows that perfecting one's spiritual life is not the most profitable rallying cry for churches, but it may be the one closest to the Christian message.
Carol des Lauriers Cieri is a freelance writer living in Maine.