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The Great Tolerant Majority

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Here's a nice news flash: Most people really are religious and tolerant, faithful and open, altogether American. That's the conclusion this week of a major Pew Research Center study of religion in America. They call it "non-dogmatic." In what feels like an increasingly dogmatic world, it is ultimately our greatest strength.

Among the key findings: "A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion."

The point is not that religion doesn't matter for most people -- actually, it does. It's that as seriously as they take their own religion, they are also tolerant of the view that others can pursue their own path to salvation.

Additional findings: "Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. … Only among Mormons (57 percent) and Jehovah's Witnesses (80 percent) do majorities say that their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life."

And "more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith." The only exceptions, again, are Mormons (54 percent) and Jehovah's Witnesses (77 percent), with majorities believing that there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. And those two groups, both of which have what are actually surprisingly high rates of "non-dogmatic" types, total some 2.4 percent of the American public, which leaves a lot of tolerant people out there.

The argument that religion has no place in political life is really that religious faith has no place in the messy business of politics, which depends on give and take. It's easy to play give-and-take with debating points -- less so with matters of faith.

But it's just not possible to draw the line as brightly as you'd like it to be when you hear pro-choice politicians denounced as evildoers of the devil's work because they support Roe v. Wade or marrying gay couples, which will test tolerance in the next election.

Religious people can't help but be influenced by their religion in the doing of politics. The very same Pew survey shows that this is true, with all kinds of data correlating the intensity of religious practice with more conservative views on various values questions. Of course we're all influenced.

The point is that tolerance for the views of others is built into our faith, which allows us to bring our religious values to politics without always having to win. It's the "having to win" quality that makes faith a danger in politics, the "knowing you're right" to a greater certainty than anyone else, to enough of a certainty that you ignore the actual count of winners and losers. That's what makes the "use" of religion in politics a cause for concern to those watching from other parts of the world who have lived through the havoc religion in politics can wreak.

In the public discourse about religion and politics, what and whom you hear most of the time are the extremes. Denouncing somebody else is bigger news than tolerating them; fear has more energy than peaceful coexistence. And when people talk about religious voters, they usually are talking code for conservative-values voters, who will vote those issues, as opposed to the majority, who don't think of them that way, which is in most cases a very good thing.

So it's reassuring, at least, to be reminded that most people are what you would hope your neighbors would be: diverse in their own views, but united in their tolerance for and acceptance of the validity of the religious views of others. If you don't hear as much of that on television and in the public discourse, it may be because, for most people, it's your own business. We really believe that.

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