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Doing the
devil’s work

If rules are made to be broken, it may be time to dismiss another oft-cited adage — one about never discussing religion or politics in polite society.

Editorials rarely are deemed polite. Perhaps they should be. “Polite” derives from Latin words meaning “polished” or “burnished.” Neither involves ignoring differences. Pleasing sheens are achieved only after intentionally creating friction to rub away rough edges. That’s a pretty good description of what editorials attempt to do.

In today’s hyper-divisive society, social media and fringe news sources have left too many of us tightly cocooned in our own little worlds, all too eager to reject anyone else’s beliefs as categorically invalid. A little friction every now and again may help us get back to a well polished, polite society.

Nowhere has that been more evident than it was when some of the county’s most dedicated servants of God were assailed by an anonymous letter writer this weekend.

In the anonymous writer’s view, volunteers who give of their time to tell thousands of visitors the inspiring tale of Father Emil Kapaun are doing, in the writer’s words, the devil’s work.

A response from a leader of the volunteers appears in this week’s letters to the editor column. Her reply is quite polished. With a bit less polish, we might argue that the original letter writer, who didn’t have the courage to provide his or her name, was doing a far better job of serving the devil than the volunteers ever could be accused of doing.

A key hang-up appears to be that the anonymous writer thought visitors were being encouraged to pray to Kapaun, rather than God, and that miracles were being attributed to Kapaun, not to God.

As any Catholic and many others know, visitors aren’t being encouraged to substitute Kapaun for God but rather to seek Kapaun’s intercession with God. Kapaun is not regarded as performing miracles himself but rather as an instrument God used in performing miracles.

These are important theological differences that the anonymous complainer was quick to condemn without truly understanding. In his or her ultra-fundamentalist view, Catholics must all be sinners because their theology includes some elements contrary to the writer’s.

It’s an attitude that unfortunately crops up from time to time among others who have visited Pilsen to learn more about the man who may become Marion County’s first saint.

Even worse, it’s an attitude that continues to crop up not just from certain Christian fundamentalists but also from other fundamentalists in other religions, leading not just to name-calling and hurt feelings but to terrorism and violence.

One of the more polished writers of the past couple of centuries, Mark Twain, may have offered a key reason for this.

“In matters concerning religion and politics,” Twain wrote, “a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.”

All we have to do is look at recent elections and comments from both political parties to understand the truth of that statement regarding politics.

We all know and generally accept that political views will vary widely and that holders of one view often will categorically reject even slight variations as totally wrong.

What we seldom do is apply that to religion, where it is equally true.

Whether it’s with politics or religion, most of us believe what we were brought up with and what we became comfortable with in our youth. This is why some parents are so concerned about their children needing to be home-schooled or sent to a religious school. It’s also why some more radical parents in other parts of the world send their children to Islamic madrasas for religious indoctrination.

We see some such actions as value-based decisions, yet others we regard almost as brainwashing. The real difference is whether we share the views of those taking the actions.

Whether it’s in politics or religion, most of us are more eager to point out differences than we are to suggest similarities. We tend to view everything not from a sense of openness but with a mind closed to any point of view other than our own.

We like to talk, for example, of America being founded on Christian principles. But we ignore the fact that our first three presidents had religious views that many modern Christians would reject.

Not only were two slaveholders and George Washington a Mason, which some Christian denominations condemn.

John Adams was a Unitarian, rejecting the concept of the trinity — a key point that historically has separated Christianity from Islam, which like Christianity views Jesus as messiah, just not a divine messiah.

Thomas Jefferson was a self-described deist who spent most of his later years creating his own Bible by cutting out all mystic or miraculous elements of the actual Bible and pasting into his replacement Bible only passages dealing with advice on how to live. He even made copies, one of which now resides at the Smithsonian.

Differences and similarities in other areas abound.

The exact same verses that declare pork to be an unclean meat, unfit for consumption, are shared by all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism and Islam honor them; Christianity, citing a New Testament revision that also is present in Islamic canon, does not.

Combined, those faiths account for slightly more than half the world’s population. Are the rest categorically wrong, or did they simply have faith revealed to them in a different way that we are not divine enough to judge?

It’s not doing the devil’s work to practice one’s faith differently — or even to practice no faith at all. The devil’s work is done whenever we automatically condemn what’s not our own tradition and operate under a false pride that we are the only ones whose ideas are valid.

Religion is so baked into our souls that it might be difficult to achieve that degree of enlightenment. But as we embark on a new political season, can we at least attempt to do this with politics?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Jan. 6, 2021

 

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