American Religious Tolerance
It is part of the American myth of uniqueness that we invented religious toleration. In fact we haven't been that tolerant. Early empires tolerated their religious diversity. Greek, Roman, Mogul (in India under Akbar), Chinese, Japanese, even the early Roman empire were all tolerant of religion in their empires. But all empires used religion to validate their rule and the privileges of the elite. When threatened, they would persecute religious believers. The Roman empire turned from persecuting Christianity to persecuting those who weren’t Christian as it became the holy Roman empire. There were always dissenters, pagans, witches, heretics and traitors. They were often persecuted by the state in the name of God. As nation-states arose in Europe the King’s religion was the religion of that nation or region. Religion was used to validate divine right to rule and to have more. the dissenters were those who dared not to believe the same as the King. Many fled from the old world to the new for their own freedom of worship and belief. But they carried the Royal model with them. They set up plantations in VA and New England and later colonies in their own image and tried to establish one religion for all. The 1st major intolerance in America was against Quakers and Jews. Then against native Americans. Roger Williams was the first religious universalists who studied Native American religion, that of the Narragansetts in what would become Rhode Island. I know of no other American who learned a native American language and found truth in their religion and worship in the colonial period--and very few after that.
After the revolution the 13 colonies proposed the establishment of 4 Christian denominations: Calvinist, Anglican, Congregational, and Baptist. Only the Baptist declined and insisted on minority or dissenting status for all. It was Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of Virginia who put together the first American document on religious freedom and separation of church and state.
Much happened before America. Most notable in Europe was the Edict of Torda in 1568 by the Unitarian King John Sigismund of Transylvania. The notion of freedom of religion came into the American Constitution as the Bill of Rights and was ratified in 1791. But it was never extended to everyone. African slaves could not practice their religions. American Indians have been persecuted or denied freedom to worship in their languages and sacred sites. America's record in Hawai‘i is particularly bad and masterfully covered up. Let me return to this in a moment.
All American freedoms were guaranteed by how the minority was treated by the majority. If a minority’s rights were guaranteed for them, then the rights of all are guaranteed and protected. That is the logic of the American system.
But there has never been religious freedom for indigenous Americans and those who live in lands that the United States has acquired as territories (our term for colonies). First, there has been the systematic displacement of native languages with English. Praying and worshiping in Native American and Hawaiian languages were forbidden, ridiculed, and even outlawed. Second, freedom of belief is recognized as an essential ingredient of religious freedom. Non-creedal religions have had difficulty defending their rights. Without formal creeds, by American definition, they must not be genuine religions. Native Americans have been termed “pagan” and their beliefs have been classified as mythology. It is curious that the root meaning of myth is worship.
I once tried to help a class I was teaching become more tolerant of others’ worship. I drew a cartoon--of two lions worshiping in front of an image of a great Lion. The little cub says to his father: “Isn’t it wonderful how God made us in his own image.” We cannot worship god in any other form than our highest and best image of life, of relationship, of community.
All our images of god are human creations. I am not saying anything new. Even medieval Catholic theologians constructed a via negativa. That what we say about “God” is a human construct. Protestant theologian F. Schleiermacher said that we project our image of “God” on the universe. Paul Tillich said the “Protestant Principal” is that whatever we say about the Ultimate is not ultimate. All "Bibles" are [hu]man-made; they must be written down in human languages!
This is the “Paradox of Idolatry”; and the “Paradox of Worship”:
1. All Gods are idols. (Our projection; the Protestant Principal)
2. All idols that we worship are our truest representatives of what is most sacred and meaningful. (Thus, they come from the insights and truths that we have experienced.)
3. Therefore, no one worships false Gods; false gods have been proven false and false Gods are never worshiped but always discarded.
4. What we worship is the clearest indicator of who we are, what our highest vision of ourself and our community can be.
Let’s expand this paradox.
1. All gods are idols. Neti, neti. Not this, Not this. This is the ancient denial of our claim that our Existential or Personal Truths are Ontological Truth. Images only point beyond themselves to the divine, that which we can imagine as something better and more just than ourselves.
2. My most treasured beliefs and vision of possibility are also my idols, my personal truths. I must take responsibility for my idolatry. What I believe in; and what and how I worship is a human construction.
3. No true worship is false. It is experientially true; it is what I have learned and experienced; what my community has learned and experienced; it is as true as we are able to live at this moment in our lives.
4. How we worship is who we are. Even those who say they don’t worship, most likely venerate themselves or what they can control or possess.
Hawaiian spirituality is extremely advanced philosophically and theologically. I have permission to share a dialog between our Kumu Uncle Glen and Haku Chris on a site visit in 2002. They were discussing the paradox of the sacred hidden in two words: Kane and Ki’i (Tiki in Tahitian). Kane, the creator of life, of life also means man. Kane is the manifestation of the sacred as abundance, life and love. Ki’i, the name of the first man, is the word for god or image of god. God creates man; man creates the image of God. This is the divine paradox, a reminder to look for revelation’s mysteries more broadly and tolerantly.
Notes of a talk in 2002