Is every faith defensible?
Scripps Howard News Service
May 27, 2002
As a young prince Henry VIII wrote a brilliant defense of the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For the king's efforts the pope awarded him the title "Defender of the Faith." When, years later, Henry broke with Rome and proclaimed himself the head of the church in England, the monarch kept the title and passed it along to his successors.
Prince Charles, aware that on any given Sabbath fewer than a million of his future subjects worship in his nation's established Anglican faith, has proposed on his accession to the throne to make himself the defender of all faiths.
It is a bad idea. How can one simultaneously defend all faiths when so many of them conflict with one another? It is one thing to hold that religion is a good thing, but quite another to affirm that all faiths are equally good. If anything jumps out of today's newspaper headlines, it is that the world's conflicts are so often justified on the basis of religious differences. Can the future king equally defend the faith of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland when their adherents are at each other's throats?
The prince recently held a summit for Britain's religious leaders and launched a movement called Respect. He surrounded himself with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Britain's chief rabbi and representatives of Islam, the Sikhs, Bahai, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.
Among the schemes proposed by the prince are opening Muslim schools to other religions, providing sanctuary for victims of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and promoting joint Christian-Muslim aid to the Palestinians.
While religious tolerance is a worthy objective, it is too often based on a sense that religious convictions are benign, cozy feelings that don't make demands on believers. Interfaith understanding is a worthy enterprise, but only so long as we understand that creedal differences have consequences.
For example, as Prince Charles was calling for Respect, the Saudi ambassador to Britain was publishing a tribute to Palestinian suicide bombers who die (in his words) "to honor God's word." Of the first woman suicide bomber, the ambassador announced that the "doors to heaven are opened for her."
It takes a lot of faith to blow oneself to bits, but is that a faith the prince ought to defend? And can we respect religious laws that permit the exploitation of women and call for flogging, amputation and execution for adultery? In Nigeria recently, a woman was sentenced under Islamic law to be buried up to her neck in sand and stoned to death.
Interfaith cooperation and collaboration are common in the United States, where we respect the separation of church and state. But we wisely refrain from expecting our government to defend faith. Government's proper function is to defend people.
(David Yount's new book is "What Are We to Do? Living the Sermon on the Mount" (Sheed & Ward). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22193 and vy e-mail at email@example.com.)
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