The Strength and Pitfalls of Religious Conviction in Our Pluralistic Society, Tension Persists between Tolerance and a Strongly Held Denominational View

By Carol des Lauriers Cieri | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Strength and Pitfalls of Religious Conviction in Our Pluralistic Society, Tension Persists between Tolerance and a Strongly Held Denominational View


Carol des Lauriers Cieri, The Christian Science Monitor


With God on Our Side:

The Rise of the Religious Right in America

By William Martin Broadway Books 417 pp., $27.50 Behind the Stained Glass Window: Money Dynamics in the Church By John and Sylvia Ronsvalle Baker Books 384 pp., $24.99 Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit Editors Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky Continuum 140 pp., 19.95 Three new books, while striking out in different directions, offer insights on the state of religion in our culture. The most arresting common thread is tolerance - or the lack of it - and the irony that while Christians preach the gospel of brotherly love, some of them can display a dazzling, even deadly self- righteousness. Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit is a collection of essays and sermons on the topic, while Behind the Stained Glass Window is a scholarly study about the role of money in churches. With God on Our Side was written for the general reader, as a companion volume to a PBS series on the rise of the Religious Right. As intimated in the title of the last book, who is more sure of themselves than those who think they "have God on their side?" The others are insiders' texts, practically trade books, aimed at ministers, pastors, priests, and the deeply involved lay person. Disparate as they may be, all have something to say about the state of our convictions. In the introduction to "Removing Anti-Judaism," Howard Clark Lee writes, "We stand at a time when interreligious conflicts are mounting across the world, while bigotry is capturing the minds of young people in many places." In his epilogue to "With God on Our Side," William Martin writes, "The level of religious conflict appears to be rising, and the historically unprecedented extent of religious freedom {in the United States} may be in some danger." While those writers suggest intolerance is rising, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, authors of "Behind the Stained Glass Window," see another dynamic. "The real danger to the church may be that it has become lukewarm from within," they write. Their book is a thorough analysis of why church contributions have declined, and in the catalog of causes, the temperature issue is not trivial. Indeed, their research shows that most pastors think "congregations do not have a clear overarching vision with which to challenge their members to improve their stewardship." Apparently the Christly balance between conviction and meekness is harder than it looks. Err on the side of conviction, and you drift into intolerance. Err on the side of meekness and you drift into moral relativism. While the Ronsvalles report that evangelicals are also seeing a decline in contributions, their ability to articulate a sense of mission is undeniable. It is a key to their success, according to Martin, whose introduction to "With God on Our Side," is a quick historical sketch of religious attitudes from colonial days to the early part of the next century. His book opens with Billy Graham in the 1940s, and the remainder documents the growing popularity and influence of conservative Christians through the next 50 years. Martin also covers the theological tenets that underpin the development of the religious right. Separatism is one of them: "The distinctive trait that repeatedly moves fundamentalists to withdraw from those deemed insufficiently pure in heart and mind, bolsters confidence in one's special capacity to see and follow the proper path." Early on, those who wished to harness the convictions of this growing movement realized they had to counter this impulse. …

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