Essay: The Roots of Tolerance
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: According to a recent survey, those American churches that grew most in the 1990s were theologically conservative congregations: Roman Catholicism, Assembly of God, Church of Christ.
SINGING: Come, come the saints…
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No church saw a greater percentage of growth than this, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But something else is going on in the religious life of America, beyond the pollsters’ notice.
Whereas the ghetto once segregated Jews from Christians in European cities, in today’s America, on middle-class blocks like this one in San Francisco, the Buddhist lives next door to the Methodist, who lives next to the Taoist, who lives next to the Greek Orthodox, who lives next door to the Baptist. A friend of mine, Jewish, lives next to a house full to bursting with several generations of Muslims. Their front doors converge on a row of mutually-tended rose bushes.
In her wonderful book, “The Ornament of the World,” Maria Rosa Menocal writes of the great achievement of medieval Spain: Muslims, Jews, and Christians living alongside one another, tolerating one another, and more–borrowing from one another, learning.
America may be forming a civilization more daring and splendid than any medieval Spain could imagine. Perhaps one could not have predicted this in earlier generations. Nativists in the 19th century argued against admitting eastern and southern Europeans into a young America they described as essentially a Protestant nation. And Mormons were persecuted in this country. And even today hate gets scrawled on the outside of a synagogue or mosque.
But secular America survived sectarianism and our fear of one another’s theologies. America became a country where every religion is tolerated, never more so than today. And with toleration has come mixing, a kind of spiritual mysogenation. It is common to see it at a wedding ministers and priests of several religions standing along side one another at the altar, just as it is common to see Presbyterians or Jews at the Zen meditation center or at the Hindu Yoga class.
Could it be that the recent growth in conservative religions be related to the fact that America has become so theologically mixed with exposure to other religions so frequent, some may feel the need to assert this is what I believe, not that.
Despite such distinctions, we work alongside people of disparate, even historically rival faiths. And American children play in each other’s houses and smell sticks of incense from a grandmother’s bedroom and see plaster saints and shrines they do not understand, but over time, they do not find foreign.
In America, we attend funerals in foreign holy tongues and bar mitzvahs and confirmations and quincinieras. We quietly notice how our neighbors are consoled by their religions and the peace that unfamiliar Gods bestow. Could it be that the last concoction from the American melting pot is religious? America’s children are already familiar with fusion cooking, and everyone recognizes Michael Jackson’s face in his video morphing into all the faces of the world.
SINGING: It’s black it’s white, yeah, yeah
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: One meets multi-racial children in America who do not any longer choose between parents in describing themselves, but say “both.” She is Korean and African, Mexican and East Asian. More interestingly, such children tend also to say “Baptist-Buddhist,” “Catholic- Hindu.”
When I grew up in the pre-Vatican Council Catholic Church, when the catechism warned us of mixed marriages, it was not a matter of mixed blood the Church worried about, but theology. “Beware of marrying a Methodist.” On the other hand, the great wisdom of Catholicism in the Americas, certainly colonial Spanish Catholicism, was its syncretism: Its willingness to absorb Indian spirituality even while it converted the Indian. There was the Polish Pope, a few weeks ago, in the basilica of Mexico City, bent with age, being blessed by Oaxacan women in a pre-Colombian ceremony of cleansing.
In American neighborhoods from working-class Oakland to working-class Brooklyn today, one sees extended families of extraordinary religious diversity: Catholic and Protestants, of course, but also Mormon and Muslim, relatives and in-laws gathered around a single kitchen table. I remember after my Mexican aunt married my uncle from India. I remember Hindu hymns chanted over the Christmas turkey. It seemed completely natural to me as a child. Now I marvel that already in the 1950s, my family was moving so far in America beyond the golden achievement of medieval Spain.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.