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Religious Racism

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 21, 2008. We've come a long way in race relations since that day in April, 1968 when Dr. King was killed. But racism is still alive in the United States, and we still have a long way to go before we experience the true meaning of the phrase, One Nation Under God.

I have lived long enough to see the whole scope of the civil rights movement work its way through the American consciousness. When I began my college years at Denison University in Ohio in the fall of 1950, I found myself in a fraternity system that included 90% of the men on campus. And in those years, segregation was still the rule when it came to fraternity membership. There were not enough African-Americans on campus to form their own fraternity, but they were excluded from the all-white groups which inhabited fraternity row.

Even at the age of 17, I knew this was wrong. I went to school knowing that I was going to join the only fraternity on campus which welcomed brothers of all races. It was called an "American-letter fraternity" (as opposed to a Greek) - the American Commons Club. We included among our members all the blacks on campus who wanted to be fraternity members. There was enough interest in what we were doing, and we attracted so many members, that at one point we were excluded from participation in inter-mural sports, because we simply ran away with all the trophies.

At one point, we led a protest march in 1953 against a racially segregated swimming pool on the edge of town. We all marched through the gate, paid our fee, and then waited while the final person came through, our black president. When he was refused admittance, we all demanded our money back and marched out the way we had come in. A pathetic little demonstration, perhaps, but I think we were ahead of the curve.

Through the years we have seen our national consciousness become aware of the evils of prejudice against racial minorities and women. We are still conflicted about granting full and equal rights to gays and lesbians. I am certain that we will look back some day on this kind of bigotry with the same sense of guilt and shame that we now feel about racial prejudice.

However, we are still blind to the fact that religious prejudice falls into the same category. We must begin to think of it in terms of "religious racism," the idea that because someone else's religious skin color is not the same as mine, he is somehow inferior, not only in my eyes but in the eyes of God. I had an uncle who thought I was going to hell because I was the wrong kind of Presbyterian! We know that the Roman Catholic Church tends to think that all Protestants are outside the grace and mercy of God. Evangelicals are certain that liberal Christians are working for the Devil. And we hear constantly about radical Muslims who believe that, since non-Muslims are all infidels, killing them is an act of devotion to God who delights in their death.

When will we generate the kind of anger against this type of immoral bigotry which will allow us to initiate a new civil rights movement? We need a movement to end religious racism. We hear claims that God wants us to maintain our separate and exclusive little groups, that God takes pleasure in our attempts to prove that we are right and everyone of every other religious color is wrong. The fact is that God is on the exact opposite side of that discussion. Since we are all his children, God wants us in a single community of love and acceptance. To blame God for our bigotry and ignorance is the worst kind of blasphemy. And we will have to answer for it one day.

We tend to be prejudiced against the "other," the person who is different from us racially, ethnically, sexually, religiously. That attitude is caused by ignorance of the simplest of all spiritual truths - there is no "other." There is one God. There is one people. When we reject anyone for any of these reasons, we are participating in the destruction of our own family.

Posted 1-23-08

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2008