Two religious books of 2015 address American’s deepest fears and anxieties: terrorism and political gridlock.
In Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an in-depth historical, philosophical and theological argument against religious extremism and ‘altruistic evil,’ or violence in the name of God. As E. J. Dionne, Jr., wrote in his recent Washington Post column, “If you preach religious peace and tolerance, then practice them,” believers must face the painful facts that killing in the name of God is not a new thing in history. Dionne quotes Sacks’ most disturbing statement:
“Too often in the history of religion people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”
Jihad carried out by radical Islamists is simply the most recent denial not only of Islam but all three Abrahamic traditions including Judaism and Christianity.
The roots of altruistic evil, including the slaughter of innocents, however foreign and incomprehensible, can be found in something close to home: religious literalism and fundamentalism. Literalism distorts scripture out of context. Fundamentalism is idolatry, making a god out of a particular point of view. When combined with group paranoia, Sacks describes how religious literalism and fundamentalism can become the motivation for evil in the name of God.
In The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics,John Danforth the former Republican senator from Missouri and Episcopal priest, traces the bitter political gridlock in Washington to the same roots. In his view religion in American has too often become a wedge dividing people. However, he believes that people of faith can change politics for the better if they follow four broad principles:
- Keep politics in its proper place. Politics is not religion!
- Advocate for the common good rather than political self-interest.
- Use religion as a unifying force.
- Compromise on policy decisions without which governing is impossible.
As a religious leader Danforth calls on people of faith to pray for political leaders regardless of their policy positions. And by practicing what he calls the virtue of seeking the common good, he believes religion can help restore the American democracy to a functioning government.
Both Sacks and Danforth believe that it is necessary for people of faith as children of God to resist self-interest and live for the common good without which our communities and the nations of the world are reduced to chaos and conflict.