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Jewish World Review March 7, 2000 / Adar II, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Religious Tolerance -- RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE is a tricky thing, as the recent brouhaha over anti-Catholic sentiment at Bob Jones University surely proves. The university has been roundly excoriated recently for its attacks on Catholic teaching and the pope. But isn't the right to hold such views what religious tolerance is all about?

Don't get me wrong. I find repugnant the comments by the former president of the university, Bob Jones Jr., who said he would rather "speak to the devil himself" than meet Pope John Paul II when the pope visited South Carolina in 1987. And as a Catholic, I certainly regard as wrong the university's pronouncement that the Roman Catholic Church is a "cult." But as an American, I must defend the right of religious institutions to hold whatever views they choose - no matter how personally offensive I or others might find them.

Somehow, this simple principle has been lost on Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and other members of Congress, who have introduced a Congressional resolution condemning Bob Jones University not only for its policy against interracial dating - which the university wisely rescinded last week - but for its anti-Catholic bias. The non-binding resolution calls for official condemnation of "practices, such as those prevalent at Bob Jones University, that seek to discriminate against and divide Americans on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion." The precedent is a risky one.

When the Congress of the United States seeks to condemn the beliefs and practices of any religious denomination, the First Amendment is in danger. If Sen. Torricelli and his colleagues succeed in disparaging a group of fundamentalist Protestants because of their benighted views on Catholicism, what will prevent a group of feminist legislators from asking Congress to denounce the Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women, or a group of Jewish legislators from asking Congress to condemn efforts by Southern Baptists to convert Jews?

What one religious group views as orthodoxy, members of other denominations may view as heresy. One group's obligation is another's affront. And where will it end? Our founders rightly understood that freedom of religion meant that Congress couldn't take sides in these sectarian disputes, which is why the First Amendment prohibits Congress from doing so: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Of course, the purpose of the Torricelli resolution isn't really to rebuke Bob Jones University for its religious views, but to try to embarrass the Republican Party, and dissuade Catholics from voting Republican in the fall. Democrats have made a fetish of invoking the Republican Party's so-called ties to the "religious right" - by which, they mean fundamentalist Protestants - to scare off Catholic voters, as well as Jews, mainline Protestants and the non-religious.

Democrats want Catholics to believe that since many fundamentalists hold views not only at odds with Catholic teachings but hostile to them (and to Jewish and some Protestant denominations' beliefs as well), the Republican Party must somehow endorse these religious views, since so many of these fundamentalists tend to vote Republican when they vote at all. This is utter nonsense.

But if anti-Catholicism among a party's adherents and supporters were reason enough to reject the party's presidential nominee, then, Democrats had better beware. As the New York Times' religion reporter Peter Steinfels wrote recently, "The solicitude of the Democrats for Catholic sensibilities is especially remarkable." The most vituperative criticism of the Catholic Church, he notes, comes not from fundamentalist preachers but from liberals - especially Hollywood directors, newspaper editorialists and artists - who frequently depict the church and its leaders as authoritarian, anti-Semitic, sexually repressed and predatory. "The Catholic Church takes more nasty hits weekly on cable television than yearly from Bob Jones," Steinfels rightly says.

The Democrats should forget censuring Bob Jones University, which, unfortunately, has no monopoly on intolerance. Sometimes, protecting religious tolerance requires putting up with a certain amount of intolerance, no matter how distasteful it may be.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate