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Thu, Mar. 26th, 2009, 09:00 pm
Interreligious dialogue paper


One of the main premises of our class this semester was that interreligious dialogue is necessary for moving from a less desirable to a more desirable state of affairs. The precise details of these states of affairs were open for debate, but in general, the authors we read and our class’ response to them took for granted that progress, however understood and however slow to happen, is the point of dialogue. The preferential option for religious pluralism — sometimes expressed as a mandate for religious pluralism — arises quite naturally from this assumption; a rising tide ought to lift all boats, and all that. However, this approach to dialogue ignores the voices of those who do not generally experience progress as a welcome rising tide, but as an unwelcome and threatening tsunami. What does interreligious dialogue look like in a setting that is conservative, in many senses of that word? Admittedly, this question is far too large to be answered within the scope of this paper. However, I hope that taking a close look at one particular case study will shed some preliminary light.

In June 2008, the city council of Hamtramck, Michigan passed a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance that included specific language protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Predictably, controversy ensued. Opponents successfully placed a measure to repeal the ordinance on the November ballot, and this measure passed. The primary public face of this effort was a group called Hamtramck Family (http://hamtramck.org/family/), a coalition largely composed of Catholics, evangelicals, and Muslims. [Local religious communities were not united in opposition to the ordinance; see, for example, http://www.hamtramckcitizen.com/letters/10-29-08-letters-hyska-sparks-rahman-miah. Also, opposition was not a purely partisan affair; one of the main organizers of the vote-no initiative, Akm Rahman, was a public and vocal supporter of Barack Obama’s candidacy (http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/blog/hamtramck)]. The group also claimed support from the local Buddhist and Hindu communities.

I watched the 24 videos on Hamtramck Family’s YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/hamtramckfamily), most of which were recordings of speakers at an October 12 rally. Several Muslim imams, a Catholic priest, and a Buddhist religious leader were among the speakers. Virtually every speaker specifically cited religious grounds for their opposition to the ordinance, but it is difficult (and inadvisable) to separate out these religious objections from the political, social, and economic objections also presented. The two main organizers were Father Andrew Wesley and community leader Akm Rahman. Father Wesley spoke approvingly of how they were demonstrating that all religious people can unite in one common cause under one common God. He addressed the comparatively low Christian turnout at the event by describing anecdotes of support among the Polish Catholic community. He also claimed that the opposition efforts were not an attempt to oppress any group of people, but to protect against certain behaviors that infringe on their rights as believers and Americans. Rahman warmly greeted “members of our mosques, churches, Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples” and then attacked the procedural legitimacy of how the city council passed the ordinance. He lamented that the mayor and council members were elected on promises to make Hamtramck a nice place to live, but now were acting against the citizens’ will; he urged them to stop wasting money, stop taking rights away from regular citizens, stop granting special rights to particular groups, and stop bringing division to the community. He declared that in Hamtramck, nobody asked about anybody’s gender or whether they are straight or “the gay,” and that no local incidents of harassment based on sexual orientation had ever been reported. Finally, he described Hamtramck as family-oriented and asked the audience to remember the children, since homosexuality is prohibited by the “Holy Koran, Holy Bible, New Testament, Old Testament.” The other speakers reaffirmed these themes, often choosing to focus on one in particular. Imam Mohammed Shehab Khan of Baitul Islam Mosque, for example, spoke on how all scholars agree that God has given a rule against homosexuality, and that all individuals must choose how they will respond to that rule. City Councilman Alan Shulgon, on the other hand, focused on the idea that the city government should have different priorities—police, firemen, schools — and that the ordinance does nothing good beyond replicating already - existing state and federal rights.

The most common (and clearly the most impassioning) theme was the need to defend Hamtramck and its families against dangerous outside influences. Arif Huskic of the Bosnian Islamic Center demanded that the city council give rights to “our family” and “our children and youth,” and accused outside activists of targeting Hamtramck because of its large immigrant population, many of whom have limited English skills and so theoretically would be less likely to recognize the Trojan horse of the anti-discrimination ordinance. He spoke against approval of the ordinance because it would be a step towards gay marriage, which is against “any of God’s books,” so people should “come together for faiths” and “stand for God’s commandments.” Nizam Ahmed proclaimed that “this is the greatest current issue because we live in Hamtramck,” which is a great place where people from different faiths can come together around an issue, but that would change if the “no” vote did not prevail. Gabriel Aziz, an African American member of the Hamtramck Human Relations Commission, urged constant vigilance and promised that he would “vote NO every time this kind of legislation rears its head in our community,” because scripture says it’s an abomination—in Christian scripture, Islamic scripture (Koran), under scripture of Torah (Old Testament and Jewish community) — and because “a number of other great religions testified today that is an abomination in most civilized theological circles.” Zacharia Zindani affirmed that Hamtramck is great city, with a great lifestyle for different kinds of people with lots of diversity, and complained homosexual acts have gone from behind closed doors to being an open issue demanding recognition over past decades, although it is a dangerous lifestyle associated with domestic abuse, higher mortality, and diseases. Therefore, he urged, the citizens must reject the ordinance, which is in conflict with city, state, federal, and — most importantly — religious laws: he cited the Koran where God destroyed a people for homosexuality, and explicitly warned that we do not want that kind of destruction to happen in Hamtramck. Gregory Kirchner, a Catholic, similarly asked: “Do we want more gay clubs and drag bars? Do we want perverts parading naked in the streets like in San Francisco or New Orleans? Do we want children exposed to perverts? Do we want more prostitution? And they are disrespecting our priests, demonizing them! Will we let them?” [He also expressed concern for protecting the privacy of women, which I assume was a reference to a widespread conservative talking point that prohibiting discrimination against transgendered people would mean that men could use women’s public restrooms]. Even the Buddhist representative (whose name was unfortunately unintelligible in his introduction), the President of International Peace Monastery USA and the American Bangladeshi Buddhist Conference, sounded an alarmist note: citing the Buddha’s admonition against sexual misconduct, he argued that allowing the ordinance to stand would be an insult to one’s father and mother, because the gift of life that we received from them must in turn be passed on to our own biological children, i.e., same-sex couples cannot procreate without outside assistance and so are a threat to the order of life.

In summary, then, ordinance opponents strongly felt that not only the safety of the family, but free speech and religious freedom, were at stake because of the language specifically protecting people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. To put the question bluntly: what’s up with that? James Ault provides the best answer I have seen, in his book Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. He began his research project with an interest in the sociological aspects of Religious Right political identity, and soon found them to be unsatisfactory:

Looking at popular conservatism as an effort to defend family obligations as sacred duties against the tide of individualism and individual rights…made sense and helped resolve some of the puzzles it poses for outsiders—why right to life coheres with militarism and capital punishment, for example, or why government welfare programs are seen to undermine the moral fiber of American life…The leading sociological studies of these conflicts in American life had explained them in terms of competing ‘worldviews’ or conceptions of ‘moral authority’: the conservative one holding moral authority to be fixed and transcendent, the liberal one holding it to be relative and conditional…they did not explain why some people hold one worldview.

Through his immersion in a Massachusetts fundamentalist Baptist community, his interest expanded beyond politics per se into lived experiences of religion and morality, which challenged the tidy explanations of the sociologists:

Neither could they explain the specific content of these conflicting worldviews: the place of reciprocal obligation in the conservative view, for example, or the commitment to gender defined as two essentially different types of human being inhabiting different domains of activity. Nor did they help us understand how those holding morality to be fixed and transcendent…can take presumably unchanging moral absolutes and successfully apply them to the messy, ambiguous and continually changing circumstances of life.

Ault became convinced that reciprocal obligation is the bedrock principle of conservative communities, transcending particular religious convictions and geographical location:

Seeing new-right activism not simply in terms of worldviews or ideas but in terms of lives organized in circles of cooperating kin helps…It also helps us understand both the larger framework and the particular elements of the conservative outlook in terms of a practical organization of life found widely among working-class people and those in small, family-based businesses, who, regardless of their religious backgrounds, tend to be more traditional, in certain ways, on issues of family and gender…In all these different religious traditions, each with its distinct theology, forms of worship and principles of polity and organization, conservatives can be found defending traditional gender roles and the authority of tradition in general.

By “all these different religious traditions” above, Ault means the full spectrum of Christianities and Judaisms in the United States. However, taking a global view, Ault sees this dynamic at work in a broader selection of religions, especially clearly in the various examples of religious extremism:

In addition, much to the surprise of political commentators who had seen religion fading from importance in the modern world, fundamentalism exploded onto the world stage toward the end of the twentieth century, with the rise of militant movements among Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Though different in important ways from one another and from fundamentalist Protestantism in America…[they] expressed militant opposition to modern secularism’s assault on the traditional and the sacred, and used sacred texts to justify that opposition—even in Hinduism, where, in the absence of a single canonical scripture, Hindu fundamentalists elevated one text to central importance. (Ault 201-203)

We can see that this analysis as a whole applies well to the interreligious coalition of ordinance opponents in Hamtramck. First, they argued the primacy of clear gender distinctions. Second, they referred to an unchanging and universal moral code. Third, most of the speakers identified themselves as speaking from, and for, a particular tight-knit community with shared cultural historical roots: Polish Catholics, or Muslims from a particular immigrant background. Fourth, of the speakers who were not clergy, most identified themselves as local business owners. Fifth, they made explicit reference to sacred texts as the source of their moral authority. Finally, they warned of a localized collapse of civilization if tradition were not upheld.

What they did not speak about very much was doctrine and theology. In their emphasis on practice, they have a kinship with what Mark Heim describes as “the path of justice” in pluralistic theology and dialogue: “This route is grounded not in philosophical reason or the silence of existential faith, but in the struggle against hunger, exploitation, and persecution” (Heim 72). Hunger is not much of an issue for the Hamtramck traditionalists, but perceived exploitation (of children in particular) and persecution (of people of faith) most definitely are. They seem quite willing to “test all religious conviction and practice by an ethical norm: what yields socially destructive fruit cannot be held to be true” (Heim 73). Indeed, they further seem willing to embrace the common corollary that what they hold to be untrue must therefore be socially destructive—and for traditionalists, things that are “true and good can never be new” (Ault 207). In this tendency to identify disagreement with disaster, the Hamtramck traditionalists remain in kinship with the liberationists, who easily fall into the trap of believing that “we fight for true justice, ergo we are serving the divine” (Heim 97).

In methodology, the Hamtramck dialogue lines up with Paul Knitter’s initial basis for interreligious dialogue: “1) grounding dialogue in personal religious experience and firm truth claims, 2) acceptance of the hypothesis of a common ground and goal for all religions, and 3) openness to genuine change or conversion” (Heim 74). It might appear that there is little actual openness to change or conversion, and indeed, if one interviewed the speakers about their religious convictions, my hunch is that they would deny that openness. However, the existence of the dialogue itself may represent a shift away from a strict “silo” understanding of religions: the boundaries between traditions, so often vigorously defended, are opened for a little traffic. It is also important to remember that “Knitter endorsed ‘doing before knowing’ as a religious imperative” (Heim 75), which I think can apply at the psychological level as well as the theological level. People may do openness before they are able to know openness. All the same, it is doubtful that pluralism as understood by the authors we read this semester would be an appealing prospect to the Hamtramck traditionalists.

As do liberationists like Knitter, the Hamtramck traditionalists find a common ground for dialogue in human need, in the religious subject instead of the religious object (Heim 76). God is of interest as the founder and enforcer of the moral order, but the primary topic of discussion is humans as obedient to, or defiant against, that moral order. In the liberationist context, Marjorie Suchocki notes that “dialogue is inevitably judgmental…perhaps there is some fundamental level of human well-being that can serve as a valid standard” (Heim 84). The Hamtramck speakers do not have any qualms about being judgmental, to be sure, and in their dialogue with each other, they are eager to outline a fundamental level of human morality that will ensure well-being within a proper social order. As it “might be that the Christian heaven and the Buddhist nirvana are both free of suffering, and therefore the absence of suffering can be taken as a basic index of well-being” (Heim 85), so too might it be that the Christian and Muslim and Buddhist versions of the “good life” are all free of gender confusion and open sexuality, and therefore the absence of those putative perversions can be taken as a basic index of morality, whatever other disagreements about virtuous behavior the Christians and Muslims and Buddhists may have. We can also compare Suchocki’s privileging of the ideal over the actual — “each religion’s highest valuation of what physical existence should be may be discovered, she suggests, not in its culturally contaminated concrete ethics, but precisely in its projected ideal” (Heim 85) — with Ault’s observation of the Baptist congregation that “accepting the fact of mothers working outside the home did not lead members to jettison or qualify the model of God’s plan for the family they relied on to order their lives” (Ault 198), and the Hamtramck speakers’ repeated insistence that they had no problem with their LGBT neighbors, they just could not tolerate this formal acceptance that carried with it the force of law.

Liberals tend to categorize this kind of distinction as hypocrisy, disingenuousness, or plain muddled thinking. Indeed, anyone expecting the Hamtramck speakers’ comments to follow standard conventions of logic, coherence and evidence would be sorely disappointed. No local anti-discrimination law is needed, because existing state and federal law protects everyone, and legally protecting GLBT folks will destroy the social order. No complaints of harassment have ever been reported in Hamtramck, and people of faith must remain free to rebuke GLBT folks. To repeat the blunt question from above: what’s up with that? I turn again to Ault, who notes of his Baptists that “flexibility, tolerance and fairness were achieved simply in the informal, day-to-day collective acts of regulating family and personal life against the firm background of things known in common. They were achieved in the doing of them, not in any explicit accounting of them. In fact, this mode of ordering social life works best if participants are generally unaware of this disjunction between moral maxims, on the one hand, and the flow of concrete judgments, on the other” (Ault 199). The Hamtramck dialogue represents the surfacing of this disjunction in that particular community, with predictably incoherent results. I am not sure that this failure of knowing does not, in fact, enhance rather than detract from the doing of this dialogue. After all, “tradition does not descend from the heavens…its effectiveness depends on the actions of people over time, in concert, cooperation, conflict and struggle” (Heim 208). The liberal emphasis on talking everything out before taking any action may result in more productive dialogue, in the formal sense, but that formal setting in itself may be a barrier to true understanding across differences. From Heim’s description of the liberationists’ attitude of “just do it” where justice is concerned, it seems this preference for action over intellectualization may be another area of kinship between the traditionalists and the “path of justice.”

In this case study, we have seen that interreligious dialogue in a conservative setting can follow patterns and methods that are similar to the liberationist approach of Knitter and Suchocki. However, the substantive content of the “basic standard” of the Hamtramck traditionalist dialogue is quite different from the “basic standard” of the liberationists. Knitter and Suchocki understand justice as the liberation of individuals and groups from the abuse of collective standards enforced by the powerful upon the disempowered. The Hamtramck traditionalists understand justice as the preservation of the proper social order, where collective standards encourage and enable individuals and groups to act in non-abusive ways. As Ault observes of his Baptists: “Day in and day out they witnessed the confident assertion of collective standards over and against individual discretion, interest and will…A person’s willingness to sacrifice self in relationships of reciprocity naturally lends itself to abuse…To consider that moral values are ‘relative’…simply encouraged, in their eyes, greater rebellion, chaos and destruction” (Ault 205-206). The traditionalist goal is not to move from a less desirable to a more desirable state of affairs, but to reclaim the given state of affairs in order to restore it to a desirable state.

This difference is important not only in understanding what is going on in dialogues between traditionalists of various religious convictions, but in preparing for dialogue between progressives and traditionalists. A common complaint about interreligious dialogue is that getting a bunch of liberal Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims together simply results in a discussion of how liberal truths play out within different religious communities. For meaningful interreligious dialogue to happen, these liberals need to be open to conversation with traditionalists that might “change or convert” them in some way. Given the intellectual challenges inherent in discussing difference from within a traditionalist perspective, this case study at least suggests that identifying possible areas of cooperation around a common cause may be the most promising approach to take for building relationships of understanding between progressives and traditionalists. Identifying those causes and implementing the cooperation may be challenging, but if interreligious dialogue were easy, we would already have abundant examples of its success.


Ault, James M. Spirit and flesh : life in a fundamentalist Baptist church. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2004.

Heim, S. Mark. Salvations : truth and difference in religion. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2006.

Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)

An interesting essay.

Personally I think the quote "“flexibility, tolerance and fairness were achieved simply in the informal, day-to-day collective acts of regulating family and personal life against the firm background of things known in common." is desperately missing the qualifier "towards other people like them," but that could be the difference between New England and Southern fundamentalists.

Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)

Huh. My experience of Southern fundamentalists is that, in general, they are of the "that gay boy who does my hair at the salon is so sweet, but The Gays are a dangerous threat" type. (Also happens with racial and religious differences). With assholes mixed in, especially among men--but in the South, asshole men punishing difference have a cross-denominational history, sadly.