Law, Religion, and Protocol of Civility



Protoco1 of Civi1ity in the Dialogue of Religions


Copyright@ 2001 Keyvan Tabari. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


 The traditional American protocol of conversation in a sports bar calls for avoiding topics of religion and politics altogether. Chris Russo, the “Mad Dog” host of the sports-talk show at New York’s celebrated radio WFAN, has articulated the rule: “I hate to get involved in it. Religion, politics, you’re wasting your time. One ear, and out the other.”

You simply don’t mix sports and religion. Charlie Ward, a player for the New York Knicks, recently failed to observe this protocol at demonstrable cost. He caused a major controversy by telling the New York Times his views about the Jews: “Jews are stubborn,” “They had (Christ’s) blood on their hands,” “There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day.”

You would think that all the fans of Russo’s talk show would condemn the expressing of such views. Not so. Here is how one caller saw it: “If you are a practicing Jew, part of being that is believing that the Christians don’t have it right. And if you’re a practicing Christian, if you really believe it, you believe the other guys are wrong, so how come, when people say the things they know they think, everyone gets all fired up? I think it is silly.”

But what about coexistence between the Jews and Christians? The caller would not be mollified: “Coexisting peacefully is one thing, but if you’re a man about it, and you choose a religion, whatever it might be, part of that is saying, -Well, you know what? I think the other guys have got it wrong, maybe, and that’s why I’m picking this one.'”

Does the “First Amendment” right, then, perhaps compel a duty to exercise freedom of expression? Another caller did not think so: “It was a couple years back where it seemed that after every game, after every win there was a reference to God being on their side, and I mean, it’s just ridiculous to think that God is on one team’s side in a stupid basketball game.”

So, religious expressions have a proper, and therefore, limited place. Right? The caller thought so. “I mean, if you wanna go with recovering from a serious ailment or something like that and God is on your side, I’m all for it. But a basketball game? Please. I mean, enough already.” [The New Yorker, May 7, 2001]

But where exactly do you draw the boundaries of the sphere of religion? The response depends not so much on the metaphysics of morality as on the practical requirements of the statecraft. The First Amendment to the United states Constitution begins with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Just 11 days after its ratification, on New Year’s day 1802, the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson interpreted this clause to mean that thus, the American people built “a wall of separation between church and State.

To the extent that Jefferson’s wall keeps religion out of the affairs of the State, it is controversial. No less a figure than the present Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, has blamed “Jefferson’s misleading metaphor, II for freighting the establishment clause and causing bad decisions by the Court in the recent half a century: there is no foundation, “in language or intent of the Framers,” that they meant to build such a wall. [Wallace v. Jafree, 1985 in [hhtpjjwww.achw.orgjspecs.html]]

On the other hand, Jefferson was replying to the Danbury Baptist Association, in Connecticut, that had solicited his support in their hope to keep state out of Religion: “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals- That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinion.” Jefferson was eager to concur: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith .or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach action only, and not opinion I shall see … the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” [hhtpjjmembers.truepath.comjsaltsitejpage 18a.html] 

This, of course, was merely an affirmation of the Constitution, reflecting the raison d’etre of the Puritans’ escape to this land: to worship in ways they deemed pure, free from domination of the Church of England. [Robert L. Bartley, The Republic’s Debt to Religion, WST, Apr. 16, 2001 ]

Promoting religious free-thinking was also the original goal of the oldest continuous international interfaith organization, the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF), which was founded, under a different name, in Boston on May 25, 1900. Consisting of Unitarians and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers,” from the united states, England, and four European countries, it aimed “to open communication with thqse in all lands who are striving to unite Pure Religion and Perfect Liberty, and to increase fellowship and cooperation among them. II In the following year, a representative from the Brahma Samaj movement in India, and one representing liberal religious groups in Japan joined the new organization. [Robert Traer, A Short History of the IAEF, [hhtp//]

 Even before, the first Parliament of World Religions which was held in Chicago in 1893, provided a forum for dialogue among Christian spiritual leaders and theologians, Zen, Jain, Vedanta, and Buddhist monks, a Moslem, Shintos, Zoroastrians, and Confucians. Among the remarkable pronouncements made at the Parliament was a profound theological one: “We must try to listen for the understanding of our own faith, in the faith of the other.” [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, pp. 92-93] But the Parliament which was fortuitously convened in conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition was not institutionalized. The second Parliament would not meet until a hundred years later. 

  In the meantime, scholars grounds among followers of diverse faiths,) but the perception of the common man did not change easily. Thus emblematically, in 1923 the Supreme Court stripped a Sikh from … [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 92, see p. 5] It was not until 1965, when the new immigration law abandoned the system of national origin quo that the door was opened to many immigrants of different fait s. [More than a million legal immigrants arrive in this country every year. A Parliament of Souls, p. 5.]. The resulting religious landscape has been dramatic. All of cities in the United States are multi-religious now. [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 88] What may appear as a suburban home, an industrial building, or store in a shopping center may in fact be a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Vietnamese temple or a mosque. [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 88 “Because we are all together in this, aware of one another, and within shouting distance, if you will, of every religion, every belief system, every individual ‘the old ways of … exclusivism can not do for us anymore.’ [Michael Tobias, quoting Diana Eck, Introduction, A Parliament of Souls, p. 5] Fortunately, [m]ost of us are not so hung up on racial identity that we can’t be comfortable with a member of another race and relate to them and enjoy their company.” [Imam W.D. Mohammad, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 236)

Interfaith dialogue could take many forms: parliamentary style, institutional, theological, community (to achieve better relationships), spiritual (to learn about prayer and meditation), and inner (conversation with self). [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 92) The Internet has facilitated dialogue among religions. The North American Interfaith Networks lists a selection of 31 web sites and online indices, and runs an interfaith chat room, hosted by the veteran observer participant Bettina Gray.

The goals and the results of interfaith dialogue have been several. As Gray says, “[h]onest encounter eventually means a surrender of misconceptions in the face of contradictory evidence.” critical evaluation need not be abandoned. It is hard, however, to “throw stone,” when “no religion has an exclusive claim on authoritarian abuse, hypocrisy, … the perpetuation of violence” Further, “[k)nowing the worst is not a reason to avoid examining the best…” [Bettina Gray, Preface, A Parliament of Souls, p. 14)

Secondly, interfaith “dialogue is not simply about understanding one another, but developing a deeper understanding of ourselves.” In that sense it enhances each one’s religion. Religious or secular, we have to encounter the question of our own identity “in the context of people whose faith is different.” [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, pp. 90, 93]

 Thirdly, we are Contemporary America compels “pluralism” which requires an encounter producing mutual education and exchange and living together in the common give and take of life.” [Dianna Eck, in interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 88.)

On the first Sunday of the new century, the Episcopal Bishop William Swing stood up at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery to welcome the guests from the Downes Memorial Methodist Church in Oakland, California. “The idea that Buddhists and Methodists can make peace and this was not possible a short time ago, that news is going to inspire Hindus and Sikhs, Muslims and Jews to make the same discovery.” [UAR, 72 Hours] Reconciliation of religions is another fruit of the dialogue.

Indeed, fifthly, from this exchange a multilayered spirituality is emerging. Especially among the young Americans, a considerable syncretism of religious belief and practice could be observed, such as remaining a Presbyterian while at the same time exploring Zen Buddhist teaching. “Even more common is the phenomenon of picking and choosing a belief from a variety of sources,” while remaining within organized religions, which results in “Vegetarian Unitarians, Lambs for Christ, Quakerplians, Creation-Spirituality Catholics, macrobiotic kosher observant Jews” [Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers, quoted in [A Parliament of Souls, p.93]

We have not yet arrived at one world religion. But, sixthly, we have expanded our definition of religion. Hans Kung, attending the Second Parliament of World Religions, in Chicago described his religion: “I cannot prove, but I have reason to trust that there is a deep meaning in our lives that we have to discover, that we are coming from somewhere and going to somewhere, that even death is not the end or everything. So that is, of course, religion. We call this God in our Jewish/Christian/Muslim tradition. II [ In interview, A Parliament of Souls, pp. 128-129.] Thus he lumped together the majority of the religious (52% of the world population) as the followers of basically one religion. [ A Parliament of Souls, p. 88]

 Middle Eastern monotheism, which also encompasses the Baha’is and Zoroastrians, still leaves out 13% of the population of the world who, as Hindus [A Parliament of Souls, p. 88], have many more gods, three hundred and thirty million gods to be exact. They are, however, brought in by Eck’s definition of god.

 [In Hinduism] there is the sense of the visual nature of… [our] apprehension of the divine. We are people of the book and of ear. It’s ‘Hear, 0 Israel,’ or the sense of the logos as revealed. There is in the Hindu tradition a sense of the abundance of the divine. And our main human problem is opening our eyes, to be able to see the divine in the many, many places where God shows Godself, you might say. So polytheism isn’t about the numbers of gods there are. It’s about the abundance of the divine in the world. [ In interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 91]

 In this manner, the only major religious group this is excluded are the Buddhists (6% of the population of the world), along with a few other groups (Sikhs, Jains, and Confucians who together constitute a mere 0.55% of the world population). [A Parliament of Souls, p. 88] The Buddhists simply do not consider the question of God relevant. Buddhism, however, is not deemed incompatible with God. [Alan Lou, “To the best of our knowledge,” KQED, Sun 6.17.01] And Dalai Lama’s encompassing definition of religion is accepted by others in the interfaith dialogue: “I believe, in spite of different philosophies, all religions teach us to be a good person. Those human qualities such as patience, tolerance, forgiveness, mutual respect- these are the essence of religions.” [In interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 62]

 Sant Rajinder Singh explains that what the. Sikhs have in common with other religions is the message of universal harmony underlying all other realities. [Michael Tobias, Introduction, A Parliament of Souls, p. 6] Kung refers to this “ultimate reality” as God [Kung, in interview, A Parliament of Souls p. 129. InstTOC.html]; while some prefer to call it “spiritual reality”.-[Kung, in interview, p. 129; and Michael Tobias, Introduction, A Parliament of Souls, p. 6] Accordingly, the agenda of the 1993 Parliament of World’s Religions was to discuss the role of religion and spirituality [ p. 1]; and the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religion recognized that the Ultimate Reality could be called various names, including the Absolute, God, or Great Spirit, by its different constituent “traditions”.  [ p. 3]

 Spirituality is perhaps a more encompassing term than religion. It was defined by members of the 1993 Parliament, variously, as the belief in “the possibility of a whole new civilization built upon love, compassion, and living in sustainable kinship with earth;” the ability to forgive; and the commitment to freedom of thought and equality between men and women. [sri Chidanandan Sarawati, Brother Wayne Teasdale, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, Rabbi Irving Greenerg, Susannah Heschel, Azizah AI-Hibri, all summarized by Michael Tobias, Introduction, A Parliament of Souls, p. 6]

But what is “tradition”? The 1999 Parliament implied that the followers of a tradition, are also religious and or spiritual persons, and “center their lives in an Ultimate Reality.” [ InstTOC.html, p. 3] However, another major interfaith organization, the United Religions Initiative (URI), assigns a distinction to tradition, at least when used in conjunction with “indigenous”. In its application for membership form, “Cooperation Circle Information,” URI specifies as its diversity requirement for each circle, “at least three members from different religions, spiritual expressions, or indigenous traditions.” The disjunctive “or” indicates that the reference in URI’s Preamble to “religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions” (and the same language in singular cases in its Principles) should not be interpreted as subsuming tradition as a part of religion or spirituality. Special deference paid to indigenous people at URI’s meetings enhances the impression that with the addition of tradition, URI means to “unite” (or build bridges among) more than just “religions”, or spiritual peoples. Does tradition then expand the definition of “faith” in the interfaith dialogue? And what is the next step in this broadening of the definition of the concept which began as “religion”?

 The dialogue with the other than religious, of course, has taken place. In 1991, thirty two Nobel laureate and other eminent scientists circulated an Open Letter to the American Religious community urging them to take measures to change in the values of civilization in order to prevent the destruction of human habitat: “Efforts to safeguard planetary environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred and as a universal moral priority.” Major coalition of American Christian and Jewish organizations responded and, in 1993, established the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. [ pp.1-2]

 The 1993 Parliament of World Religions issued a statement called Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, setting forth principles for “behavior”. [Hans Kung, in Interview, A Parliament of Souls, p. 125; Intro.html p. 4]. To develop this into A Call to Our Guiding Institutions for the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religion, views and assistance of “leaders, scholars, workers, teachers, executives, interpreters, activists, ethicists, and others” were solicited.[ p. 1] The Call was in recognition of the fact that “the choices shaping a just, peaceful, and sustainable future are choices we must make together. Unique to this moment is the possibility of a new level of creative engagement between the institutions of religion and spirituality and the other powerful institutions that influence the character and course of human society.[ Intro.html. p. 2] The call was addressed, in addition to religious organizations, to institutions of government, agriculture, labor, industry, and commerce, education, arts and communications media, science and medicine, international intergovernmental organizations, and organizations of civil society.[ InstTOC.html. P. 4]

It is a detailed exploration of “new modes of creative engagement of each institution with every other and with the critical issues which confront the planetary community. []

 The World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) held its 1999 World Assembly in Amman, Jordan with “civil and political leaders from across the world” attending, as well as the religious and faith leaders. It points out that the religious communities are “the largest and most well organized forms of civil society in the world today,” and it has mobilized this force “often in close cooperation with governments and preeminent civil counterparts” in the areas of Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation, Human Rights and Responsibilities, the Child and the Family, Development and Ecology, Disarmament and Security, Pace Education. [ttp:// pp. 1-2]

 This spring, the Pope was, once again, practicing his version of protocol in the intercourse of religions. He was on a historic visit to Athens “where he voiced regret for all sins committed by Catholics against Orthodox” Christians. Then he went to the Great Umayyad Mosque in Syria to pray, and to urge that Moslem and Catholic clergies “present our two great religious communities as communities in peaceful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict.” The pundit’s promotion of interfaith dialogue had already taken him to Israel the previous year in his crusade against anti-semitism. [The Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2001] Thus the graceful contrition for the inquisition– which began at the other Ummayyad Mosque, in Cordoba– was now complete.

The United Nations has proclaimed this, the year of the Dialogue of Civilizations, heeding a call first made by a Shiite cleric, who is the current President of Iran. six years earlier, at the invitation of the United Nations, Bishop William Swing of San Francisco hosted an interfaith service on the occasion of its 50th anniversary of the founding of that world organization.

From that service grew the united Religions Initiative with the ambitious goal of inviting all “to join in imagining what a United Religions might be.” [United Religions Initiative, Building Global Interfaith Cooperation]

The idea of interfaith exchange is, of course, not new. The first Parliament of Religions met in Chicago in 1892. What distinguishes URI from those earlier efforts…is its institutionalization of interfaith dialogue and, hopefully, collaboration. It is fast becoming an effective global congregation of people of diverse faiths; along the way it has received the enthusiastic blessing of Mother Teresa and Dalai Lama, among others.

 Perhaps the old protocol of avoidance is becoming obsolete. We may have no choice but to engage in talks about our religions, and politics. If so, we need to develop a protocol of civility for our dialogues.


 This article titled ‘Protoco1 of Civi1ity in the Dialogue of Religions was written in 2001.

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