Sometimes old ideas are the most dangerous, and few ideas are older than those that undergird religious intolerance. Lamentably, these ideas are acquiring new life. In 2002, Hindus in Gujarat, India, killed several hundred Muslims, with the collaboration of public officials and the police. Europe has recently seen a frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism, while the appeal of radical forms of Islam appears to be increasing in the Muslim world. Prejudice against Muslims and a tendency to equate Islam with terrorism are too prominent in the United States. On and on it goes. Intolerance breeds intolerance, as expressions of hatred fuel existing insecurities and permit people to see their own aggression as legitimate self-defense.
Two ideas typically foster religious intolerance and disrespect. The first is that one's own religion is the only true religion and that other religions are false or morally incorrect. But people possessed of this view can also believe that others deserve respect for their committed beliefs, so long as they do no harm. Much more dangerous is the second idea, that the state and private citizens should coerce people into adhering to the "correct" religious approach. It's an idea that is catching on, even in many modern democracies. France's reluctance to tolerate religious symbols in schools and the Hindu right wing's repeated claims that minorities in India must become part of Hindu culture are disturbing recent examples. The resurgence of this kind of thinking poses a profound threat to liberal societies, which are based on ideas of liberty and equality.
The appeal of religious intolerance is easy to understand. From an early age, humans are aware of helplessness toward things of the highest importance, such as food, love, and life itself. Religion helps people cope with loss and the fear of death; it teaches moral principles and motivates people to follow them. But precisely because religions are such powerful sources of morality and community, they all too easily become vehicles for the flight from helplessness, which so often manifests itself in oppression and the imposition of hierarchy. In today's accelerating world, people confront ethnic and religious differences in new and frightening ways. By clinging to a religion they believe to be the right one, surrounding themselves with co-religionists, and then subordinating others who do not accept that religion, people can forget for a time their weakness and mortality.
Good laws are not enough to combat this fundamentally emotional and social problem. Modern liberal societies have long understood the importance of legal and constitutional norms expressing a commitment to religious liberty and to the equality of citizens of different religions. But, though codification is essential, constitutions and laws do not implement themselves, and public norms are impotent without educational and cultural reinforcement.
We need, then, to think harder about how rhetoric (as well as poetry, music, and art) can support pluralism and toleration. The leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement understood the need for this kind of support; the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. illustrate how rhetoric can help people imagine equality and see difference as a source of richness rather than fear. During the recent electoral campaign in India, leaders of the Congress Party, especially Sonia Gandhi, effectively conveyed the image of an inherently pluralistic India. (The words of India's national anthem, written by pluralist poet Rabindranath Tagore, also celebrate India's regional and ethnic differences.) The current U.S. administration has made useful statements about the importance of not demonizing Islam, but the rhetoric of certain key officials has also highlighted Christian religion in ways that undermine tolerance. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for example, regularly asks his staff to sing Christian songs. And while he was a sitting U.S. senator, Ashcroft characterized America as "a culture that has no king but Jesus."
For centuries, liberal thinkers have focused on legal and constitutional avenues to tolerance, neglecting the public cultivation of emotion and imagination. But liberals ignore public rhetoric at their peril. All modern states and their leaders convey visions of religious equality or inequality through their choices of language and image. Writing to the Quaker community in 1789, then President George Washington said, "The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness." Such delicacy is now in short supply. If leaders do not think carefully about how to use public language to foster respect, human equality will remain vulnerable.