This Nicholas Kristof column in last Wednesday’s NY Times, denouncing the “Left Behind” series of novels popular among evangeical Christians, rather perfectly captures a misunderstanding of religious tolerance that is found too often on the Left, and one I’ve dealt with before. Here’s Kristof:
The “Left Behind” series, the best-selling novels for adults in the U.S., enthusiastically depict Jesus returning to slaughter everyone who is not a born-again Christian. The world’s Hindus, Muslims, Jews and agnostics, along with many Catholics and Unitarians, are heaved into everlasting fire: “Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and . . . they tumbled in, howling and screeching.”
Gosh, what an uplifting scene!
If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series, we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hatemongering. We should hold ourselves to the same standard.
I accept that [the authors] are sincere. (They base their conclusions on John 3.) But I’ve sat down in Pakistani and Iraqi mosques with Muslim fundamentalists, and they offered the same defense: they’re just applying God’s word.
. . . [I]f I praise the good work of evangelicals – like their superb relief efforts in Darfur – I’ll also condemn what I perceive as bigotry.
See, here’s the problem. Kristof isn’t just asking the authors of these books to allow for people of other faiths to practice their own faiths in peace; he’s demanding that the authors change what they themselves actually believe to be the Word of God. That’s not a plea for religious tolerance; it is, in fact, religious intolerance, as Kristof is saying that the beliefs of these Christians are so offensive to him that they must be branded as “bigotry” and driven from public expression.
Let me put this another way to explain why the comparison to radical Muslims is so offensive. I have no problem with people who believe that God is going to send me to Hell for being a Catholic. They believe their thing, and I believe mine. I have a major problem with people who think that they, rather than God Himself, should send me there. It is right and proper and necessary to denounce religious extremists who are unable to accept the peaceable coexistence of people of different religions, who call for earthly violence and political opression against those of different faiths. But to demand that people give up the tenet of their faith – a central one in many faiths – that says that they are following the one and only path to salvation, that’s what Stephen Carter has referred to as demanding that people treat “God as a hobby” rather than taking faith seriously. While it may in some circumstances be rude to say it, I wouldn’t want to live in a country where people could not feel free to profess that theirs is the only true faith; such a country would be one in which no one really believed in anything at all.
The “Left Behind” guys aren’t asking that anyone be harmed in the here and now; they are content to wait for Jesus to take care of that. By failing to distinguish between the two, Kristof shows that he still views religious beliefs as something that can be bent to the needs of human society rather than the other way around. Which is to say, not religion at all.