Gustav Niebuhr on Religious Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr, a former religion reporter for The New York Times, is an associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University. Niebuhr is the grandson of H. Richard Niebuhr and the great nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr, two of America’s most distinguished theologians. Though discussing religion was a big part of his family life, he said, “there were many subjects in play in our household.” Niebuhr began his career as a journalist with an interest in covering American politics, until an opening at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asking for a writer to cover religion as a major news story caught his eye. “Religion in my lifetime has never been such a part of the public sphere,” he said. “We have to understand how religion works in the world-it’s as important as ethnicity or social class or race.” Niebuhr chatted with Zócalo about his latest book, Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, the roots of religious tolerance in America, whether believers of different faiths can get along, and our fascination with fundamentalists.

Gustav Niebuhr, by Stephen Sartori

Q. What inspired this book?

A. In the 1990s and the early part of this decade, I was a reporter at the New York Times on the national desk, and I covered primarily religion, as a news story. One thing I found was that there was never any shortage of stories about conflict, yet at the same time, I really felt there was an awful lot more to write. I kept encountering examples of people as I traveled the country who are working in one way or the other to establish substantive links of communication and cooperation that crossed religious boundaries. The other side of conflict was cooperation, and it struck me as a story that was not being told, even though there may have been more people involved in it, and more of a sense of an actual movement going on at the very local level. From my experience as a journalist, I felt there was a story out there – and a good one – that needed to be told, and in the process it might be considered a positive story and an uplifting story, even though my angle in approaching was more as a news story.

Q. Why are we so fascinated with religious fundamentalism? Does it just make for sensational news, or is it something in particular about fundamentalists or our attitude toward religion?

A. Fundamentalists broadly described have an advantage, and that is, they’re able to speak in extremely clear terms about what is right and what is wrong, according to their points of views. They’re very good in that way at sound bites. They don’t lack either for an overall media sophistication, or, from my point of view, charismatic personalities. They’re a natural draw for journalists. If anyone can tell you, “Hey, look, this is exactly the way things are supposed to be, and everything outside of this line I’m drawing is wrong,” well, it’s extremely clear there are no nuances there. At the same time that attention they receive – it lays down a challenge to everyone else. I don’t think that fundamentalists don’t deserve coverage – they do. It lays down a challenge to everyone else as to how you’re going to define what you really believe in, and whether you’re going to be able to accept any of what is being put before you, whether it reflects your beliefs in any way or whether it distorts and threatens your beliefs.

Fundamentalists too – and I’m using this in a really broad, broad way, religious militant may be a better way of putting it – they’re often very tech-savvy. They’re good at spreading their message. They’re the people who mastered the use of the cassette tape early on and TV, and they have been very good I think with the Internet in terms of getting their views out. The problem is that they really do represent a minority, and in many cases a rather small minority, in most religions. The clarity with which they speak and the aggression with which they get their message out often obscures the wide variety of people who are not them, people who might be described as being in the middle.

Q. Given the emphasis on fundamentalism, how did you find your subjects? Was it primarily through your reporting?

A. Some of it was during my reporting years. This was what got me interest in the subject. I ran into real people who were pursing interfaith dialogue and interfaith projects. They often drew inspiration from much more public figures than themselves. They could point to statements by Pope John Paul II, and the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, or the Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh – he is a Vietnamese exile, if you Google him, you’ll find some interesting stuff, he has written a lot of books. People like that are great exponents of interfaith cooperation, and I met more and more people in the U.S. who were responding to them. The people whom I was meeting were not widely known, they were working at the local level. I would run into them when I was working on a story and someone would say, “Oh, I’m also doing this.” And I’d say, “That’s interesting,” and more and more people I met were involved in local interfaith efforts. After a while, it struck me there was a pattern there and it was something worth pursuing. I began to theorize that I was seeing some sort of grassroots movement, like environmentalism without the Sierra Club – something without a big national organization, just people working in localities.

When I went to write the book, I did what journalists do, and that is network and ask people whom I was talking with if they knew of others, and one lead would take me to one person, and that person might know two people and pretty soon it was becoming clear there was a lot going on in different parts of the country. There were even a few people out there who were trying either to connect some of these dots, and in at least two cases were attempting academic studies of these groups. That was helpful too. Then I began to get a wider sense numerically of how many people were out there. But as I say, this stuff floats beneath the media radar by and large. It’s hard to put out a press release, I think, that says, “We’re having these very serious conversations, we’ve learned this over time, we’re not suspicious of this group, we’re working together to improve the local environment, city parks, we’re building houses with Habitat for Humanity.”


Q. What spurred this era of religious cooperation? Does it have long-ago origins, or is it a fairly recent thing?

A. It’s both. It’s much newer than not. The inspirational roots lie back in 1893, and ironically, in a conference that began on September 11, 1893. That was something called the Parliament of the World’s Religions, staged in Chicago on the grounds of the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair of that year, which was just a great thing. The Parliament was a two-week meeting that was originally put together by locals, in Chicago, Protestant figures who felt you couldn’t hold a World’s Fair without giving some nod to people’s religious lives. Instead of trotting out important Protestants, what they decided to do was invite representatives of 10 religions that they’d identified worldwide to send delegates, which is an extraordinary thing. It fell halfway between being an academic conference and a popular conference. There were at least 2,000 to 3,000 people in attendance everyday during the two weeks. What happened was the people who attended, who I’m sure represented mainly the Midwest, were astonished to meet literate and urbane and very well-educated people, particularly from Asia, who represented Buddhist and Hindu traditions and who spoke in universal terms. And one of them was an Indian – Swami Vivekananda – and he made an extraordinary impression and was covered in newspapers coast to coast. He went on a tour of the U.S. after, he preached universalism, that all religions had validity and people shouldn’t convert one another.

There was no follow-up to that, but with the growth of a visible religious pluralism in the U.S. – after changes in American immigration law in the 1960s – new religions communities, particularly from Asia, became very visible around 1990. Attitudes began to shift, particularly among Christians and Jews, who had been talking to each other for several decades, to the idea that, “Gee, we ought to maybe include these other groups. It makes sense-we can see them, they’re down the street, we work with them in our offices, our kids are going to college with their kids.” It also happened that in the early 1990s, some of Swami Vivekananda’s disciples, who had always maintained a presence in the U.S., approached religious groups in Chicago, to celebrate the centenary of the world’s religions Parliament. An organization was developed to do that, and it turned out to be this extraordinary weeklong meeting of people from a vast variety of faiths. It established an inspiration for people to follow.

The movement really proceeds on two tracks – there’s the inspiration on the 100th anniversary of the Parliament, and at the same time, and probably more importantly, there’s the incentive of visible pluralism, where you just see more and more people who are religious, but they fall outside the more traditional Catholicism or Protestantism that people talked about in the 1940s and 1950s. By 2005, one person, a man named Bud Heckman whom I quote in the book, tries to do a survey of all these organizations and comes up with 1,000 across the States involved with interfaith work. Looking at his list, and no fault to him at all, I just thought it lacked some names, that the movement was larger and that was simply because there are some groups who didn’t have paid staff or a website or an office, but they were still out there, doing without any formal budget. And yet their work was probably as important as anybody else’s.

Q. You mentioned Swami Vivekananda and his preaching universalism, and against conversion. What do you say to those who believe the religions are inherently at odds, that they will try to convert and that they have certain attitudes toward other faiths?

A. It’s a great question, and it’s a natural question, I’m glad you asked. I think religions are by their nature different from one another. I’m not sure they’re “at odds,” but that is one way of looking at it. There are different truth claims among religions, and I think people are entitled to those. If you were to take say, Christianity, as an obvious example, if you believe in Jesus, and if you believe Jesus is the only way to salvation, OK, that means you’re a professing Christian. But what do you do with that, and is there only one way to relate to other people? Then does that mean all other people are spiritually empty? Personally, I think absolutely not, and I don’t think holding that truth claim prevents one from dialoging with somebody who believes there’s one God and Muhammad is his final and greatest prophet. I think most people have a lot to say to each other and learn from each other,  from talking to people who believe Jews are God’s chosen people or believe it was the teachings of the Buddha that show us the way of enlightenment. There’s a tremendous amount to learn without giving up your religious self. But thinking about what your teachings tell you about other people and listening carefully to other people – and this is a two-way street, it’s about being honest in speaking and being in honest in listening – you have to ask, is there common ethical ground that emerges? Is there a ground on which you can stand with what you believe, and on which your neighbor can stand in terms of what she believes, and find a way to live together and work for the benefit of society? I do think so. It’s a question of what one chooses to do with one’s beliefs. The simple thing is to say religions are incompatible but they’re not. Because as I say there are often ideas within religions that point toward the improvement of society. They come from different basic teachings, but they can propel people toward cooperation and education. It doesn’t mean thinking about whether all religions are the same or whether they’re all just as good. I don’t know how you say that – it’s like saying French is as good as English. It’s just not quite that way. They’re different systems.

Q. Can you imagine atheists and believers ever gaining a common ground the way you see believers of various faiths doing?

A. I think it’s possible, based on people I’ve met who are nonbelievers. It goes back to the question of whether you’re prepared to look for a common ethical agenda. It’s there. I had a long conversation last summer with a university chaplain, he called himself a humanist and had plenty to say about wanting to get into these interfaith dialogues. And the things he laid out, as far as I was concerned, indicated he would benefit and others would benefit by listening to him.

The problem with some individuals who call themselves atheists is that they tend to regard all religions as being neg systems, and anyone religious as being prone to superstition. There’s no way to have a dialogue with a believer if you have that attitude. You’re going to be seen as being patronizing and condescending and insulting. It’s the same with fundamentalists. If you say, “I think what you’re saying is completely wrong,” and start off that way, it’s just not going to work. It might work if you say, “I’m a nonbeliever but I’m interested in hearing where a common ethics might lie, I’ll tell you why I don’t believe, I’ll tell you what my values are but I’ll listen respectfully to you.”

The problem I think in our society is that there’s an erosion throughout society’s many levels, not just religious dialogue but political dialogue, certainly, that militates against people listening to each other and extending a basic human respect. One of the refreshing things about watching people involved in this dialogue was they were listening to each other, asking serious questions of each other, they were daring to trust one another. In that case, they were being totally countercultural. The stuff you see on cable TV is about shouting at each other, and calling each other idiots, and warning that if the world falls into someone’s hands the whole planet will blow up. I found the interfaith movement to have some inspiration in that way. There’s plenty of room for nonbelievers. One of the people, just as an aside, who pushed that was a Cardinal, the Archbishop of Milan, a man whose last name was Martini. I met him once, in the late 1990s, and in his cathedral in Milan, he had what he called a chair for the nonbeliever. It was a place where dialogues were held. There were certain ground rules – that people were to respect these dialogues, approach respectfully and ask serious questions, and not try to score points. It can be done.

Q. You mention in your introduction that religious identity isn’t private, and perhaps never was. I’m wondering if that’s true for people of all faiths. That is, how pluralistic a society are we, and does everyone – including those not believers of the dominant faiths – feel comfortable expressing their religious identities?

A. That’s another very good question. There’s been a shift toward pluralism, toward greater freedom of expression, and part of that derives from the breakup of a sense of conformity that happened in the 1960s. And I’m not talking about the hippie movement or anything like that, but rather, I’m talking about the Black Power movement and the women’s rights and gay rights and Latino rights movements. What all that did was give people a right to publicly claim an identity. It also helped religious groups in this country to step forward – the first being Orthodox Jews. I know some people of Orthodox Jewish background, growing up in the 1960s, who derived comfort from the Black Power movement because they thought, “I can claim who I am, I can show people who I am. I don’t have to conform to some sort of dress code or ideal.” I think there’s much more of that out there.

Q. You ask yourself toward the end of your book whether this is a movement, and you note the answer is ambiguous. Has this changed between when you wrote and now?

A. I am tempted to call it a movement. I really am. It’s a movement in the same way, and this is part of its strength, that shared ideas are movements. And that’s why I liken it to environmentalism, that is something that gets talked about, and people act on it, but it’s not all directed by one particular institution…. You have the President of the United States talking about America as a model for interfaith cooperation – as Obama did in his Cairo speech and others. And George Bush, not in as clear a way, but, in a way, tried to show his attention and attitude toward other faiths. You have an idea that’s in play, and it affects people at a grassroots level.

*Photo of Gustav Niebuhr by Stephen Sartori. Photo of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine courtesy amirjina.


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