Religion, Hate, and Dying in America

For nearly the last decade, I have lived in shouting distance of the oldest synagogue in North America, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. In 1790, this synagogue received a letter from George Washington which is, to me, the finest statement of American religious liberty there ever has been, and in it I am particularly fond of these words: “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights”.

George Washington, in the second year of America’s first presidency, already knew that tolerance was the wrong word so it’s amazing how often we forget it. Indeed, you can tell that it doesn’t work by who uses it. Everywhere, purveyors of hate speech ask why they are not “tolerated”, implying the hypocrisy of champions of inclusion. In most cases, of course, they are being precisely tolerated, even more than tolerated. Most people who publicly make statements of a hateful nature are only ever made to feel a little uncomfortable, if that. Even those who lose their jobs are not imprisoned or injured. Someone who is hateful may sometimes be shunned and shamed but not otherwise impeded, and that is toleration. It is too much for any of us to ask to have all our pronouncements greeted favorably. But there is a more important point.

If it were the case that everyone could have the same amount of freedom simultaneously, then everyone could have the right to say hateful things with no consequences. To paraphrase the old saying, if nobody had a nose then everybody could swing their fist as much as they wanted. But since hate speech takes the freedom of some, both by passively stealing the comfort and safety which is the guarantor of freedom and actively by creating a friendly environment for just the kind of violence dominating the news today, allowing hate speech without at least censure might indeed be tolerance, but it isn’t inclusion and it isn’t freedom. An individual violently opposed to homosexuality might complain of losing the freedom to speak his or her opinions loudly, and not think at all about whose freedom it might take to yell such things. Or whom it might inspire.

Today we are dealing with a violent crime perpetrated by a Muslim-American on LGBTQ individuals, the deadliest gun assault in American history. The most difficult part of processing this crime is it is the violent version of what is almost a verbal mainstay, the religious condemnation of homosexuality. Although the same people who have always been eager to condemn Islam are eager again, the tragic occasion shows the problem: how many of these loud voices feel this murderer had the right religious beliefs, even if they disagree with what he did about them? How effectively, and with how much dissonance, can one condemn n a hate crime against people one hates?

Islamophobia and homophobia are clear cousins. Not that there are no differences. Islamic terror does clearly exist, after a fashion. But making Islam the problem, like making homosexuality a problem creates a climate that inhibits American freedoms. Obviously. Hate attacks on American Muslims are increasing and it’s obviously not independent of the state of our political discourse.

But I think a lot of people who speak intemperately know they are doing so and persist because of the magnitude of the threat they perceive. They feel they do not have the leisure to be inclusive because of the magnitude of the threat, and they are willing to forget their humanity for safety. In fact, there’s a whole line of attack for this kind of thing these days: supposedly, an ominous thing called “PC culture” is keeping us from telling the truths that will save our lives. But it’s hard to imagine, especially when it comes to homophobia, what these truths might be. No one could even begin to think that that’s unique to ISIS.

What makes tolerance, as opposed to inclusion an uphill battle is that if you are looking for the moment to say “see, I was right all along”, without keeping a weather eye on any evidence that you might have been wrong all along, you will find it. It would be great if Islam was, full stop, a religion of peace, just as it would be great if there really was a “true meaning” of Christmas. But religions are not monoliths and religious practitioners are not monolithic in their practice. Islam, and Christianity (and Christmas), and Judaism, and Buddhism, are what you make of them. The varieties of religious experience are formed by complex and often highly individual relationships with fixed text and fluid tradition. You obviously can take any major religious text and use it to justify violence. People often have, and recently.

There is no convincing some people that there’s nothing in the Qur’an advocating violence that can’t be matched by something in either the New or Old Testaments, even though it’s an empirical fact. There’s no convincing some people that there is clearly no difference between a Muslim-American, born and raised here, who brings a gun into a nightclub than a white American who brings a gun into a movie theater or a school. Dylann Roof, who opened fire on a black church in Charleston is an obvious counterpoint. Though he did it to further another hateful but coherent ideology, one freely available in diluted form in mainstream political discourse, he is treated as an aberration. No Muslim committing violence is, despite how obvious it is that if 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and five times as many people as there are American citizens, were endemically violent and anti-American everyone would know.

There are only so many times we can say all this. It is quite clearly ridiculous in the wake of a homophobic attack to blame Islam, or militant Islam, as something foreign to Americans in a homophobic America. How can you make it about somebody else’s religion when many people in yours teach the same thing? Condemning sexuality and killing someone for their sexuality are not even neighbors, but working to make American unsafe for the expression of a form of sexuality and actively attacking it with violence live a little closer together.

But still it needs to be said. All major religious texts contain justifications for unthinkable violence, and all have been used to justify unthinkable violence, even today. Most of everybody may not harbor hatred, most of everybody seems, at least, not to have acted upon it. But history does not permit us to draw the distinctions between religious traditions that would give Judeo-Christian traditions superior standing and you have to distort both the present and the past to even pretend. And obviously, no where is that more visible than an instance in which LGBTQ individuals have been targeted, as they have been targeted in America, for Christian reasons, for so long.

We think we have an enemy ideology to fight for the simplest reason: we would be safer if this was something we could beat and win. If it’s a them, and not us, or unpredictable thems instead of definable ones, there are clear actions to take which have nothing to do with just trying to keep people from getting what they need to kill others. But when something so terrible is justified by homophobia, something alive and well and deadly all over the country, among people of all backgrounds, it gives the lie to this facile idea. There are always people who will go farther than others against the things they are taught to hate, and there are any number of hateful ideologies. It will never happen that participating in one will help defeat another. To make our country safer, we must do more than merely tolerate one another.

Andrew Tobolowsky has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Brown University.