They’re coming to tear down my synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. Forget that our 105-year-old architectural and artistic treasure is undergoing a multi-million-dollar earthquake retrofit. They’re coming. And the reasons are obvious.
The building is large. Prominent. You can see its gray dome from quite a distance—not surprising in a city of hills. And Sherith Israel fronts on California Street, a main east-west thoroughfare. Lots of people go by.
So what’s the problem? To those on the Christian right who claim exclusive knowledge of religious truth, a magnificent synagogue sitting right out there where anyone can see it has to be cause for concern. Jews—along with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists, as well as Christians who believe in live-and-let-live—have it wrong about God. By definition. And to the true believer, as I write in God’s Others, different isn’t just different. Different is bad.
Look, I’m not against anyone else’s faith, liberal or conservative. People have a right to their personal beliefs. I don’t have to agree with them, but their beliefs are their business.
But I do get bothered when others determine that my religion—or anyone else’s—is their business, too. I get bothered when private concerns—like abortion, sexual preference and gay marriage—enter the public arena without respect for all Americans’ right to figure out what they value in their private lives. I get bothered when hatred and violence replace reasoned discussion and civility. I even get bothered when a majority of New Yorkers—people in the city where I grew up—tells a Quinnipiac University pollster they don’t want a proposed Islamic center built several blocks from Ground Zero. Not on Ground Zero. Near it. Because if a majority can block that building, it can tear down my synagogue.
Regrettably, reason and civility don’t inspire true believers, who confuse faith with objective knowledge. They don’t concede the existence of objective knowledge in the first place. Rather, they adhere to a universalistic religion of a particularistic God, Who loves them and hates everyone else. Worse, they can’t wait for God’s judgment in the world to come. They seek to impose their will in the here and now.
The journalist Jeff Sharlet exposes a particularly chilling aspect of true belief in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. A relatively small group of men serves Jesus by developing relationships in the halls of power. It doesn’t run the United States or the world. It doesn’t break any laws as far as I can tell. But it does work to create a Christian America and a Christian world order. Which leaves the rest of us where?
As to Sherith Israel, I’m confident our building and breathtaking sanctuary will be around far longer than I will. But if the Christian right ultimately has its way, will we have to move the building to a less visible site? Or even tear it down? Americans in the middle of the religious and political spectrum will decide both in elections and their daily living. I hope they believe that we’re all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.