Rep. Emanuel Cleaver caused a social media storm Monday, closing a public prayer with “Amen and a woman,” as if the Hebrew word meaning “let it be” was somehow gendered. Cleaver, of course, later claimed the embarrassing episode was actually “a lighthearted pun” in recognition of women, a description that might draw water on paper, but which the video clearly shows is not the case.
But there’s far more than simple ignorance on display in the Democrat and Methodist pastor’s blessing of the new year’s legislative session. The prayer’s true scandal was largely ignored — and is indicative of a widespread societal shift toward a serious and dangerous misunderstanding of both Christianity and tolerance.
Cleaver opened his blessing in perfect line with Christian faith, acknowledging God’s “sacred supremacy,” the fallen nature of man, and the dangers to our tenuous democracy, as well as asking for God to illuminate our ideologies and prejudices so that we might work to better ourselves. But at the closing (and before the “a woman” foolishness) Cleaver said, “We ask this in the name of the monotheistic God, Brahma, and God known by many names and faiths.”
While many in the United States, especially in politics and the media, might think that a Christian pastor praying to Brahma (the god Hindus worship as the founding god of their polytheistic religion) is well and fine, this is no minor scandal. The First — First — Commandment given Moses by the Lord is “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me… for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
There’s more. When a Pharisee trying to ensnare Christ asked him “which commandment in the law is the greatest,” Christ cited the First Commandment, replying, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
So what? While it would certainly be nice for our elected representatives, and especially the pastors in their number, to understand the majority religion of their country, is it more than a matter of what makes us feel warm and cozy? What is the ignorance of one congressman or one preacher in the greater scheme?
Cleaver presumably didn’t have ill intentions, and his mistake was just a well-meaning, foolishly ignorant attempt to show “tolerance.” This thinking, however, is just another representation of a broader societal trend toward a spiritually deadly ignorance of core Christian beliefs, and with it, a societally corrosive understanding of tolerance.
Religious ignorance and false tolerance from publicly professed Christians like New York’s Cuomo brothers, speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and others, for example, has led to a dangerous level of comfort in attacking Christian nominees, closing Christian charities, persecuting Christian businessmen, and most recently restricting Christian worship.
It’s common in the West for atheists, lapsed Christians, and others to try to correct those who actually practice their faith with novel interpretations of what they say Christ would do in a given situation. Most weeks, we’re told by ignorant, if well-meaning, friends, family, reporters, or politicians what our religion teaches and how we should therefore conduct our lives.
To this crew of self-appointed instructors, a Christian pastor praying to a Hindu god might seem a welcomed sign of tolerance. Citing “the first and greatest commandment” against this blasphemy, on the other hand, might seem restrictive and bigoted stance to take in our supposedly enlightened current year.
But this is a deeply corrosive understanding of a good and decent tolerance. It’s the kind that fills half the country with a feeling of righteousness when a Christian baker is punished not because he refused to do business with a gay couple, but because he refused to participate in the celebration of a gay wedding.
It’s the kind that invokes in mayors a feeling of moral superiority when banning private businesses from their city over an owner’s Christian beliefs. It’s the kind that gives ostensibly Christian senators a feeling they are fighting the forces of bigotry and hate when they interrogate and seek to block Christian nominees to the executive and judicial branches.
“Tolerance is… a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment,” the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, a great and famous American preacher, wrote in 1931. “Tolerance applies only to persons … never to truth. Tolerance applies to the erring, intolerance to the error … Architects are as intolerant about sand as foundations for skyscrapers as doctors are intolerant about germs in the laboratory. Tolerance does not apply to truth or principles. About these things we must be intolerant, and for this kind of intolerance, so much needed to rouse us from sentimental gush, I make a plea. Intolerance of this kind is the foundation of all stability.”
This might seem harsh to those who cannot make up their mind about religion, but it’s a crucial distinction, and supports the foundations of Western society. This understanding of tolerance informs our peace, and is why good people love their neighbors regardless of their religion or politics and without praying to their gods or voting for their candidates.
This understanding of tolerance also informs our justice, and is why we once punished criminal actions instead of thoughts, without for a moment condoning wicked and evil thinking. And this understanding of tolerance informs our equality, and is why we only recently strove to care for our vulnerable without regard to their race and regardless of the real or imagined crimes of their ancestors.
Every single one of these foundations of Western civil society is rooted in our Founders’ and our people’s Christian religion and heritage, and every single one of them is under vicious attack. We see it in the boiling enmity between neighbors, attacks on and demonization of believers, firings and exiles over ideas, and even the push to distribute vaccines based on concepts of racial justice instead of age or health.
We see it daily in the streets of our towns, in our newspapers, on our movie screens, and in the halls of Congress. We see it in our classrooms and town halls, and we see it targeting our way of life.
“America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance,” Sheen wrote. “It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos.”
He was right then, and he is right now. And for this wrong, error, evil, and chaos, good men must have no tolerance.