Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has spoken of the importance of religious liberty and has advocated a “healthy pluralism” that allows for such liberty. This weekend in speeches in New York and Philadelphia, he returned to this favorite theme. At an interfaith service at the 9/11 memorial, Francis said,
“In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.” (Source; emphasis mine)
It would be tempting to read some of the Pope’s remarks as a version of bland religious tolerance for all, but that’s not what Francis is getting at. Some worry that the language of religious tolerance is code for a private religion that has nothing to do with public life. Such a tolerance calls us to respect each other’s private beliefs because that’s all they are — private beliefs — but when those beliefs begin to enter the public square, they are quickly deemed intolerant. But Francis is not calling for religious beliefs that make no impact on public life; instead, he’s calling for public acceptance of public beliefs that, when unified in their diversity, can make a difference for the common, public good.
Francis elaborated on this idea in a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia:
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others. […] The religions…have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such” is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world” (Evangelii Gaudium, 255, 257).” (Read more here)
Francis’s remarks remind me of one of my favorite speakers and thinkers on the topic of religion in public life, Gideon Strauss, who says, “Pluralism is our reality; that does not mean we have to surrender our principles. Instead, it enables us to practice a principled pluralism.” (Watch Strauss’s Q ideas talk on the subject here) Strauss’s vision of “principled pluralism” is one in which “the hope of the world to come” (that is, Christ’s Kingdom) compels Christians to work toward pluralism and civility in the public square for the purpose of justice. Christians are able to fight this good fight with love and hope “because we confess that Christ is risen.” In other words, the resurrection of Christ means that Christ is now Lord of all, so we can engage publicly with people of various beliefs without fear, in the hope that God will use our efforts to bring a foretaste of His kingdom here, now.
But guess what won’t help to bring about that foretaste of the kingdom?
Staking our faith on the success or failure of a particular political party.
Stifling the voices of those with whom we disagree.
As Pope Francis said at the September 11th memorial museum, the peace of a unified diversity “… can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven.”
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.