Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Call of Covenantal Pluralism: Defeating Religious Nationalism with Faithful Patriotism
The Call of Covenantal Pluralism: Defeating Religious Nationalism with Faithful Patriotism

The Call of Covenantal Pluralism: Defeating Religious Nationalism with Faithful Patriotism

This article is based on the 22nd Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion & World Affairs, given by Dr. Chris Seiple on 30 October 2018 at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. To view the lecture, click here.

These are difficult times. What we are witnessing worldwide today is not a new thing, but the latest iteration of a very old thing. We are again experiencing the human condition, where we humans define ourselves against the other—often the ethnic and/or religious minorities among us—in order to validate the majority ethnic/religious group, its control of state institutions, and therefore the power of violence. To mitigate such times, we must name the dynamics at play, how we think about them, and consider anew what we must do to defeat them.

The World We Live In

83% of the world’s population now lives under conditions where there are “high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion”—either through government policies from the top-down or through the social actions of individuals and/or groups from the bottom-up. According to the Pew Research Center’s June 2018 report for global trends regarding governmental and social restrictions on religion in 2016, the most targeted groups were Christians (in 144 countries), Muslims (142 countries), and Jews (in 87).

Sadly, such discrimination is increasingly targeted at religious minorities. Pew reports that 11% of governments around the world used “nationalist rhetoric against members of a particular religious group” in 2016, while 16% of those countries “had organized social groups” that did the same.

Tragically, given its history from the 1930s, “33% of Europe’s countries had nationalist parties that made political statements against religious minorities.” Meanwhile, “25 of 32 European countries had social groups displaying this kind of nationalist or anti-immigrant and anti-minority activity.”

Working East to West, here are some brief examples of this kind of nationalism of top-down and bottom-up efforts to protect the ethno-religious majority by defining against the ethnic-religious minority:

  • In China: We are now seeing President Xi Jinping elevated above all previous Communist leaders, in neo-Maoist form, as it seeks to “Sinicize” religious minorities, particularly, the house churches, but especially Uighur Muslims.
  • In Burma: We have witnessed a Burmese-Buddhist majority culture condone the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya by the Burmese-Buddhist majority Army at the orders of the Burmese-Buddhist majority government. Just two weeks ago, the firebrand monk, Wiratu, whom Time Magazine called the “Buddhist bin Laden,” said that China and Russia were “nationalist giants who stand with the truth” in their role of preventing any firm action against Myanmar (at the UN). “Don’t lie to the world saying that Bengalis are Rohingya because you want to promote Islamisation in Myanmar,” Wirathu said. “Don’t destroy our country by creating a fake ethnic group.”
  • In India: Elected officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have called for Muslims to leave the country; according to a UN report, the BJP “has been linked to incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities;” and, Modi’s government has formed a committee to position India’s identity as less than its pluralistic founding, per Jawaharlal Nehru, and more as an India “of and for Hindus.”
  • In Turkey: 130,000 people have been purged from their job since the attempted coup in 2016, many for belonging to a Sufi movement headed by Fetullah Gülen, who lives north of Philadelphia, in the Poconos. Of course, it has been somewhat ironic to witness President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the “moderate Middle Eastern ruler” seeking justice for Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, when Erdoğan has put more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.
  • In Russia: When Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimea, he did so on behalf of the ethnic Russians living in Crimea, and because Crimea was the Temple Mount to Russian Orthodoxy, where Prince Vladimir was baptized.
  • In Hungary: Prime Minister Victor Orban said after his May 2018 election victory, which brought his party 133 of 199 seats in Parliament: “The main task of the new government will be to preserve Hungary’s security and Christian culture.” His hope is to build a “Christian democracy” of the majority. And in this month, which marks the 62nd anniversary of the October Hungarian revolution of 1956, Orban is forcing out the Central European University from Budapest because it was founded by George Soros (who is Jewish and serves as a convenient “globalist” foil to Orban’s “Christian democracy”). And so a university founded to enable the transition from Communist dictatorship to Hungarian democracy now symbolizes an illiberal democracy of the majority that is, in fact, approaching dictatorship.
  • In Poland: Anne Applebaum—the recipient of FPRI’s 14th Annual Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service—notes in the October issue of The Atlantic: “Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too. . . . [The ruling Polish political party] Law and Justice has embraced a new set of ideas, not just xenophobic and deeply suspicious of the rest of Europe but also openly authoritarian.”

And then there is our own country—a place defined by the exceptionalism to self-critique and self-correct. The Foreign Policy Research Institute was kind enough to put me up at the Union League. It was founded in 1862 as a “patriotic society” to support the Union and the policies of President Abraham Lincoln, and then work with freed slaves in the South after the war.

Why did Lincoln need such support? Because he was fighting a religious nationalism not unlike the examples above. As Yale historian Harry S. Stoudt writes in his 2006 book, Upon the Altar of the Nation:

Clerical voices—which mattered greatly as moral arbiters and upholders of a virtuous social order—so meshed evangelical Christianity with Southern republicanism that one seemingly could not exist without the other. . . . Christianity offered the only terms out of which a national [Southern] identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued . . . God, who had ordained or at least permitted slavery, would never bless the Christ-denying, humanistic North (pp. 10, 43, 97).

In reacting to the Equal Justice Initiative 2015 report on the thousands of lynchings between 1877 and 1950, a writer for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher, himself from Louisiana, concluded the following in his blog, “When ISIS Ran the American South:”

No, the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror [like ISIS]. But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.

As the October 2018 tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue reminds us, this white nationalist cancer is not only still here, it is metastasizing. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that over the last decade, 71% of domestic extremist-related killings in the United States were linked to right-wing extremists. The ADL also reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitism in 2017.

In response to the Tree of Life murders, journalist Peter Maass tweeted some reflections related to the conclusion to his 1996 book about the conflict in the Balkans, Love Thy Neighbor. He wrote 22 years ago:

I am now more aware of the fragility of human relations, and more aware of what being a Jew can mean. I learned this from the Muslims of Bosnia, who made two fatal mistakes. They thought that being a minority group no longer mattered in civilized Europe, and they thought the wild beast had been tamed. They failed to realize that although a person might attach little importance to his religion, other people might take notice one day; and just because your society seems stable does not mean it will always be so. Muslims versus Christians, Jews versus non-Jews, whites versus blacks, poor versus rich—there are so many seams along which a society can be torn apart by the manipulators. These are the lessons of Bosnia that have stayed with me, perhaps, altered me. The wild beast is out there, and the ground no longer feels so steady under my feet.

This quote about “civilized Europe” 22 years ago seems to sum up not only Europe, but the United States as well. “The wild beast is out there,” still untamed, “and the ground no longer feels so steady under [our] feet.”

President Lincoln, of course, set the example we need, when considering such things. As you might know, when asked amidst the Civil War whose side was God on, he famously responded:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God’s side. For God is always right!

There was a deep humility in Lincoln’s theology. He absolutely believed in an Absolute, but recognized that he could not know, let alone speak for the Absolute, absolutely.

How do we reclaim such a posture, in both our policies and our practices?

Toward a New Lexicon

In April 2012, the late Jack Templeton, patron of this lecture series, challenged me to codify my experiences at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) into a theory of change. He wanted to know how and why IGE’s approach effected positive and sustainable change. He wanted to know why IGE was worth funding.

Before I could produce a theory of change (which would eventually take form through this article), I had to wrestle with the words that I had begun to use to describe the complicated places that IGE had been engaging around the world. My experience overseas had one common factor: the relationship between the ethno-religious majority and the ethno-religious minorities. Almost all situations had some element of the tension between the two, of the former’s desire to exercise power without including the latter.

Five sets of terms emerged from my early years at IGE. In using these terms to illustrate a positive vs. negative vision, I do not mean to suggest that some words are bad. I simply use them to elicit better thinking about the approach (and values) that is the best of America.

Respect vs. Tolerance. Respect values the essence of the other’s identity, without sacrificing the substance of one’s own. In other words, “respecting” those beliefs does not necessarily lend moral equivalence. Respect simply means that everyone should respect the inherent dignity of every human, to include the innate liberty of conscience common to all. Respect therefore encourages the right to exercise that liberty of conscience, even if the conclusions drawn are different from one’s own.

Tolerance is not enough. It allows merely for the presence of the other. No one wants to be tolerated.

Faith vs. religion. Faith is the mystery, majesty, and mercy of something greater than oneself, resulting in a constant humility of theology. It involves absolutely believing in an Absolute, but knowing it impossible to speak for the Absolute, absolutely. There are core values, to be sure, but there is also respect for the market place of ideas and beliefs, and that much can be learned from them.

Religion, on the other hand, absolutely speaks for the Absolute. There is nothing new under the sun, for the lines are clear, as the mind of God is known. There is no market place because religion holds a monopoly on truth. There is no need to listen or learn.

Multi-faith vs. interfaith. Multi-faith acknowledges and names—at the appropriate time—the irreconcilable theological differences between and among the faith traditions. These differences are not named to divide, but to understand and demonstrate respect for the essence of someone else’s identity. In other words, it is impossible to know someone without knowing their core beliefs.

Interfaith, however, tends to suggest a blending of theologies. Too often, interfaith dialogues water-down the differences, reducing rich traditions to such banal commonalities that there seemingly were no differences to begin with. Discovering common values only possesses meaning when the richness of the different points of moral departure are also understood. Put differently, if there is no understanding of difference, then there can be no respect. Incidentally, when real mutual respect takes root, practical collaboration tends to happen faster.

Patriotism vs. nationalism. Patriotism is pride in one’s country—a legally defined state with international boundaries, that includes many nations and faiths. Patriotism is defined by what it is for, including everyone as equal citizens under the transparent rule of law, with the opportunity for each to practice and bring their beliefs to bear in the public square.

Nationalism tends to be a xenophobic pride of the ethno-religious majority, defining against ethnic/religious minorities. It seeks a nation-state: a state with one homogenous people group.

Integration vs. assimilation. Integration encourages everyone to bring the essence of their identity to the table. Integration recognizes that no one owns the table, but that everyone gets a seat. Integration expects everyone to bring their beliefs to the discussions of public policy.

Assimilation expects those not of the majority to act like, if not become, the majority. Assimilation tolerates others, but they should not stand in the way of the majority, or the purposes of the “nation.”


Put differently, the above five comparisons are wrestling with the fundamental question of civilization: how do we live with our deepest differences (without killing each other)? Another way to frame these five concepts is to ask this question: how do we move beyond tolerance and diversity, beyond tolerating someone’s presence beside you, as we live side-by-side?

Seemingly, there is only one answer: mutual engagement based on mutual respect for the other’s liberty of conscience. To borrow from Star Trek, liberty of conscience seems to be the Prime Directive of civilization. As Sir John Templeton wrote in Wisdom from World Religions: “Conscience is as essential as the air we breathe . . . present wherever we look and whenever we look” (p. 174).

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, would agree. In The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1671), he wrote: “Imposition, restraint, and persecution for matters relating to conscience directly invade the divine prerogative, and divest the Almighty of a due, proper to none besides himself.” Or, less eloquently, but perhaps more memorably, Roger Williams said: “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

The above discussion speaks to a more comprehensive concept. Call it: Covenantal Pluralism. Covenantal Pluralism entails the obligation, the responsibility, and intentional pledge to engage, respect, and protect the other’s liberty of conscience, without necessarily lending moral equivalency to the other’s resulting beliefs and behavior.

Covenantal Pluralism requires a faithful patriotism that seeks an entrepreneurial competition—i.e., a cooperative competition that is loving, spirited, and constructive—that stands against the monopoly of religious nationalism. This Covenantal Pluralism, therefore, is not only the right thing to do, it is in everyone’s self-interest.

What Can You Do?

If any of the discussion so far seems apt, even appealing, then what are the practical things that you—as an individual, but perhaps also as the representative of an institution—can do?

Foremost, you have to be your own theory of change, incorporating and embodying the kinds of things we’ve discussed so far. To borrow from Gandhi, you’ve got to be the change you seek. Don’t engage the world to change it but because you are changed.

William Penn wrote: “True Godliness doesn’t turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it, not hide their candle under a bushel, but set it upon a table, in a candlestick.” In other words, cursing the darkness isn’t good enough. You’ve got to light some candles, you’ve got to be the light!

Next, you have to make the commitment to engage, i.e., you have to make the commitment to be strong and vulnerable. Relationships are hard, messy and no fun sometimes.

The best definition of marriage I’ve ever heard is this: marriage begins when you wake up one day and realize that the person next to you, is not you. The same is true for friendships: we humans project ourselves onto others. We assimilate them. We expect others to think and act like us.

Instead, we should remember the obvious: that other—whether a spouse, a friend, or someone from a different ethnic and/or religious group—has his/her own liberty of conscience. And that when we honor it, we position ourselves to learn and live. I would dare say, we become more fully human the more we anchor our identity in the identity of the other. But it first requires the choice to engage, listen, learn, and change when necessary.

That choice has two more choices embedded in it, as my own pastor reminded me earlier this month. In choosing relationships of respect, we have to choose to trust, and we have to choose to be trustworthy.

Third, we should make the commitment to make the time for relationships. There is no substitute for presence. New research from the University of Kansas this year says that it takes 50 hours of face-to-face time to make an acquaintance; 90 hours for a casual friend; and, 200 hours to make close friend. In a screen-time dominated age, the time in face-to-face discussion is imperative.

Fourth, we should make the commitment to equip ourselves. We need new literacies and new skill sets (which begin with something like the new lexicon suggested above). At the University of Washington, we are developing a graduate certificate in what we call “cross-cultural religious literacy.”

The word “literacy,” by definition, suggests that we are not fluent. And it suggests that we don’t want to be illiterate. We want to be smart enough to get the questions right. Literacy is humility. Cross-cultural religious literacy has three components, with three skill sets that permeate them.

The first component is scriptural literacy. This literacy asks that you know your own faith/beliefs at their deepest and richest best, in order to understand what they teach about engaging your neighbor. This literacy is the responsibility of the person, as well as the pulpit. The faith leader and faith community to which a person belongs is responsible for scriptural literacy.

Religious literacy is the responsibility to know enough about your neighbor’s beliefs to not tolerate, but to respect them. Again: respect does not mean lending moral equivalency, but respecting the dignity of the person and their inalienable liberty of conscience to come to different conclusions that you do about beliefs and behavior. While the faith community has responsibility in this regard, it is first the responsibility of the state to teach about comparative religion, as a function of what it means to be a good citizen of a state that has multiple nations/people groups and beliefs.

Cross-cultural literacy is the application of the above two literacies in a particular context, in order to implement some task, in order to lead. This literacy acknowledges that scriptural literacy and religious literacy can vary by (cross-) cultural context. For example, the way an ethnic group experiences and processes suffering will vary according to their faith traditions, as well as their role in society as a majority or minority.

There are three skills essential to practicing these three literacies:

Evaluation. This process takes account of self, as well as the context in which one is trying to live and/or implement ideas. Evaluation understands that the role of religion takes place along an internal and external continuum—as one analytic factor among many, to a force that can have tremendous impact for good or ill—as it tries to accurately name, understand, and interact with the role of religion in a given context. In short, evaluation requires an honest look in the mirror, naming and wrestling with one’s own pre-understandings and unintentional biases, before seeking to understand the same in another person, country, and/or culture.

Communication. There are two kinds of communication, verbal and non-verbal. These communications take place across social-cultural-religious and geopolitical identities. Communication becomes that much more important in places where things like shame, respect, and family often have a serious and long-standing role. Similarly, serious consideration must be given to how one listens and communicates within one’s own organization, with one’s own country, and within the local social-cultural-religious context (from the capital to the province). Learning to listen and speak with mutual respect takes time. But, talk leads to trust, and trust leads to tangible results.

Negotiation. As one evaluates and communicates—that is, as one engages—negotiation takes place, internally and externally. Internally, one cannot help but (re-)consider one’s own identity through the encounter of different beliefs, cultures, and peoples. Meanwhile, externally, there is a job to do. How that gets done is a reflection of the internal process, as well as one’s capacity to engage respectfully. Negotiation involves mutual listening and understanding, which, in turn, lead to sustainable results.

For an example of these kinds of literacies and skills, look no further than Pastor Bob Roberts, Imam Mohamed Maged, and Rabbi David Saperstein. They have worked together in calling attention to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, visiting Bangladesh earlier this year to speak firsthand with Rohingya refugees (in order to advocate for them).

But they are better known for their theory of change among pastors, imams, and rabbis in the United States. Their theory of change is as simple as it is practical as it is profoundly transforming. They go to a particular city, asking leaders from these Abrahamic traditions to spend three days together. The goal is to engage respectfully in a multi-faith manner, building relationships. If the rabbis, pastors, and imams want to continue to be a part of the network, then they have to invite each other over to their homes for a meal. If they want to continue, then they invite each other to their respective houses of worship. And then they do something together to serve the city.

So far, there have been 13 Abrahamic retreats, in 13 different U.S. cities, where rabbis, pastors, and imams spend time together. Leaders from 168 different congregations have participated, representing over 500,000 people. In the Philadelphia region, for example, Rabbi Eli Freedman of Rodeph Shalom, Pastor Kevin Brown of the Perfecting Church, and Imam Muhammad Abdul Aleem of Masjidullah have all spent time together—individually, and as congregations—getting to know one another.

Pastor Kevin told me: “We are deeply connected. . . . I have seen these multi-faith relationships deepen the love of neighbor demonstrated by our church.” In other words, we haven’t watered any of our theological differences down, but we are better believers, better Christians in Pastor Kevin’s case because we have engaged, listened, respected, and loved our neighbor.

After the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue, these congregations gathered for a vigil—something they would not have done if they had not been in previous relationship. Over Thanksgiving, Rabbi Eli and Imam Muhammad will bring their congregants to Pastor Kevin’s church to serve the homeless a feast in his neighborhood. This is the best of America.

Finally, we in America must rediscover the vision and mission of education. The mission remains the same: produce critical thinkers capable of reading, writing, and arithmetic. But we must remember the purpose and vision of education: to produce citizens, citizens with an empathetic and elicitive ear for each other. Toward this end, we need a much greater emphasis on civics and the meaning of a faithful patriotism that encourages mutual respect across irreconcilable theological differences, pursuant integration as Rabbi Eli, Pastor Kevin, and Imam Muhammed and their congregations demonstrate.

So I encourage you to support the Foreign Policy Research Institute and its Wachman Center for Civic and International Civic Literacy. Among other initiatives, its Butcher History Institute helps K-12 teachers develop lesson plans. There are also weekend certificates and simulations regarding American history and what it teaches about engaging each other.

It is through such programs that we can recover the essence of American exceptionalism, that remarkable capacity to self-critique and self-correct. Scriptural literacy, religious literacy, and cross-cultural literacy—and their supporting skill sets of evaluation, communication, and negotiation—need to be taught at all levels of American education if we are to sustain our capacity to live with our deepest differences.

And if we can do that at home, then we should dare to support groups like my previous organization, the Institute for Global Engagement, that dare to work in the complicated places, building relationships of trust that transcend irreconcilable political and theological differences through training programs on religion, rule of law, security, and citizenship.

Building a Faithful Patriotism

On August 16, 1681, William Penn wrote his friend, Robert Turner. Penn said that he wanted to create the “holy experiment” of Pennsylvania such that “an example, a standard may be set to the nations” (p. 65).

If we are to refresh and maintain that standard, we will have to remember the words of Sir John Templeton. He wrote in his book, Possibilities, that “conflicts of dogmatism” are best addressed by “listening carefully and respectfully rather than arguing.” He asks: “Can diligence in humility help heal conflict between many communities holding different religious points of view?” (p. 36, p. 28)

This is the question before us: can we absolutely acknowledge the Absolute, without speaking absolutely for the Absolute? Can we show respect for the innate dignity of other human beings, and their inalienable liberty of conscience?

To my mind, at least, it will take a new framework to remind and refresh our common task. Covenantal Pluralism might be such a framework. If we can pledge individually to respect, protect, and engage the other—without watering down our beliefs—then we can build a faithful patriotism that encourages, equips, and enables our capacity and skills to show respect for another, building multi-faith relationships as we integrate toward “a more perfect union.”