Religious tolerance is an American virtue

    “Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.” – Ambrose Bierce

    A few years ago, a third grade teacher asked her students to tell what their religions were.

    “I’m a Baptist,” one boy said. Other children told her: Catholic, Lutheran, Assembly of God and Methodist. To each she responded “Praise be the Lord!” Then two girls who were sisters said: “We are Muslims.”

    “Ah,” said the teacher, “Now that you are in America, you should have an American religion.”

    These children were third-generation Americans. The teacher thought she had done nothing wrong, even when parents and her principal protested.

    The Catholic Church came to Boston in the early 1800’s and only Ellery Channing of the Unitarian Church came to its defense. Catholics started parochial schools because society discriminated against them.

    The Mormon Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was killed by a mob. The Acadians were exiled from eastern Canada and escaped to Louisiana. The Puritans sailed to America for religious freedom, but returned the favor by exiling non-conformists to Rhode Island and Connecticut. Prejudice against Jews is well documented.

    My point is that every religion has faced intolerance and prejudice at some time. 

    Being different, makes you a target.

    This was one of the reasons that our founders made religious freedom the cornerstone of our Republic. They knew history and had witnessed religious persecution in Europe and elsewhere. Additionally, many were Unitarians or Deists and had an open approach to religion.

    The hateful attacks on Muslims and the Muslim center and mosque that is being built a few blocks from the 9/11 site illustrates this lack of tolerance. In part this is a wedge issue created in time for the November elections, but it also reflects the darker side of American society.

    Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, not Muslims. “All” Muslims do not want to destroy America, as one intolerant person I know claims, forgetting that people of his own faith were told to “go back from where they came.” Indeed when I hear someone using the word “all,” I know that I am talking with a closed minded person.

    There is self-interest in being tolerant. Business and society thrive when people can choose how they worship. With the demographic changes in our country, power is changing.

    But the real reason to be tolerant is because it is the right thing to do.

    “Once there was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time is called the Dark Ages.” – George Bernard Shaw


     Bob Chernow is a Milwaukee businessman.

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