Monday, May 02, 2005

When John Kennedy was running for president and passions were running high about whether a Catholic could serve both the American citizenry and Rome, a joke made the rounds about a priest and a minister whose friendship nearly came to blows. Finally the priest phoned his old friend. ''What a pity," he said. ''Here we are, both men of the cloth, fighting over politics." ''It's true," said the minister. ''We're both Christians. We both worship the same God -- you in your way, and I in His."

That rift between Protestant and Catholic is never firmly bridged, yet the most conservative members of these two groups have become tentative allies. It's a shaky coalition since each group really considers the other hellbound. (Rush Limbaugh recently said that "the religious left in this country hates and despises the God of Christianity and Catholicism"--what? he thinks these are two separate groups?) And Pope Leopold XVI, in his Ratzinger incarnation, made it plain that anyone who strays from the true Church is damned. Nevertheless, despite each sect's tacit assumption of the other's fate in the next life, their common enemy unites them. Rush again: "Liberals consider themselves more powerful than God."
So they are marching together into battle, and their foe is nothing less than the enlightenment. So says Robert Kuttner in an American Prospect column titled "Whose Nation under God?"
I never thought I'd live to see a time when the Enlightenment -- the Enlightenment! -- was politically controversial. Democracy, like science, depends on debate, tolerance, and evidence. And in a democracy, nothing is scarier than a political force convinced it is getting irrefutable truth directly from God.
Mercifully, religious extremists do not represent anything like a majority. We still have a proudly independent judiciary -- in the Schiavo case, Governor Jeb Bush could not find a single Florida judge willing to overturn the testimony of countless doctors. And mainstream denominations like the Presbyterians have begun speaking out vigorously on behalf of religious tolerance and pluralism.
But let's be clear: Our very democracy is under assault. History is filled with cases where a small minority was able to overturn democratic institutions.
Zeal on behalf of tolerance seems almost a contradiction. But the large American majority that believes in freedom of conscience and inquiry had better get organized with the same enlightened passion that drove America's Founders.

I won't be introducing myself as Jo Etta the Zealot, but that doesn't mean the spirit of democracy isn't moving within me and all of us.


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