Thursday, March 25, 2004

From blog correspondent Lee Penn
Syncretism in religious architecture
A mistake

Bush supports United Religions Initiative, syncretism
Do the Protestant religious right realize that?

Lee Penn: As you may recall - from a story that I wrote for The Christian Challenge in early 2002 - President Bush has praised the United Religions Initiative.

Here's the story, as it was published then:
Bush Praises URI Initiative

By Lee Penn
January 5, 2002
The Christian Challenge (Washington, DC)

Was it a Freudian slip, or just a coincidence?

It's hard to say. But a lot of Christians reading the current issue of the URI Update, the official newsletter of the United Religions Initiative, might be surprised to learn that "a lowerarchy, not a hierarchy" was recommended as a structural model for the URI--the controversial interfaith venture founded by California Episcopal Bishop William Swing.

Attentive readers of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters may remember that Screwtape, a senior demon, tells his nephew, Wormwood, that some strategies for tempting people are "decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I."

The eye-catching reference appears in an article in the latest URI Update about selecting the URI Global Council (the board of directors). Its author noted that: "At the 1999 URI Global Summit, 100 participants offered their highest vision for the URI Global Council. Some comments: 'Encourages a lowerarchy, not a hierarchy.' 'Service of love, not power.' 'Inspires spiritual citizenship.' Visions like these have inspired and carried the URI into being."

Organizational activities apparently according with this "vision" in the U.S. and overseas show what the URI means by its stated mission to "create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the earth and all living beings." In one of them, the URI "Cooperation Circle" (local chapter) in Asheville, North Carolina "held the Council of All Beings for people to experience being part of a ritual where the human species is only one voice among many." It was not disclosed whether the non-human participants in the ceremony were animals, plants, rocks, spirits, or all of the above.

MEANWHILE, TCC has learned that President George W. Bush has lauded the URI and Swing--who was recently in the news for blaming all religions for fostering terror, albeit with a sterner eye toward Christianity than Muslim extremism.

In a November 6 letter from the White House, Bush congratulated Swing for receiving the 2001 Citizen Diplomacy Award from the International Diplomacy Council, a private organization that works closely with high-level State Department officials to assist overseas groups who visit the US. At the end of the letter, Bush said, "Both the United Religions Initiative and the International Diplomacy Council exist to foster a greater understanding among peoples. I salute these organizations for their roles in facilitating interaction among people and nations."

Gray Davis, the (then-)Democratic governor of California, joined Bush's tribute. In a November 14 letter from his office in Sacramento, Davis said, "By promoting peace and tolerance through the United Religions Initiative, you have made a positive and lasting impact. Your outstanding dedication to fostering international goodwill is an inspiration to us all."

Frank Damann, manager of membership for the International Diplomacy Council (IDC), said that the Secretary of State is familiar with the work of IDC; in addition, George Shultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, is a member of the IDC Advisory Council. It appears that Bush's commendation of the IDC and the URI was at the suggestion of senior officials in the State Department. It was not clear that the President was aware of Swing's post-September 11 statements claiming that the terrorists did not hold a corrupted view of Islam, since all religions foster terror, a view Bush would be unlikely to endorse.

URI staff did not return phone calls asking for comment on these developments.
The letter from Bush praising the URI is - as of March 25, 2004 - on the Internet

Sources for this story also included ch. 20 of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, and issue 10 of the URI magazine, URI Update, pp. 1,3, 7, and 8.
A Federal agency, the US Institute for Peace, gave a training grant to the URI:

Grant Awards: April 2002 Issue: PeaceWatch: US Institute of Peace

The Web site lists this grant: "United Religions Institute, San Francisco, Calif. "United Religions Initiative Peace Building Training Program." Barbara Hartford. $30,000."

Note well that the URI has been in existence since 1995. Nevertheless, the Clinton Administration never gave the URI the public praise and public grants that the Bush administration has done.

Why is a Republican administration doing this, despite its putative debt to the Evangelical Religious Right?

Some people have offered me a soothing explanation: that Bush and his administration know nothing about the URI, and heard a little bit about it, and since it sounded nice ... they made some polite gestures in behalf of the URI.

The reality may be far more serious: that the URI and other ventures in religious syncretism are consistent with Administration plans in the War on Terror.

For evidence, see this link to a recent story in a neo-conservative magazine, The Public Interest.

The story is long; it is worth reading for any traditionalist. It gives us an idea of what we are up against.

The URI-relevant part of the story is at the end:

"The American project in Iraq exceeds anything Lincoln could have imagined. By the same token, it both implies and demands the abandonment of the link on which he so relied between liberal Christianity and liberal democracy. For it is crucial to our victory in the forum of world opinion (including, crucially, Muslim opinion) that we not couch our global project as akin to Christianity in any way. Mr. Bush learned shortly after September 11 not to dub his campaign against terrorism a crusade. He could hardly have done worse to call it a jihad.

By its deeds, not merely its words, this administration has exceeded all previous ones in rejecting the dependence of democracy on Christianity. It has adopted the premise that just as Confucianism, historically anything but liberal or democratic, has posed no insuperable obstacle to the democratization of East Asia, so Islam will pose none to that of the Middle East.

... [of] all Republican presidents since McKinley, Bush appears to be the most concerned with living a Christian life. All the more ironic, then, that in the most important policy and riskiest gamble of his presidency, Bush has embraced willy-nilly the view that liberal democracy is one thing, Protestant Christianity (or Christianity of any sort, or even Judeo-Christianity) entirely another. He has chosen to present America to the world not as the Christian nation for which his religious supporters take it, but as the universal sponsor of liberal democracy, which as such is impartial in principle as between Christianity and Islam.

Thus must Bush present America not just to the world but to itself. It is said that John Foster Dulles helped desegregate American society by persuading a reluctant Eisenhower to send federal troops to Little Rock lest inaction hand the Soviets a propaganda windfall. Bush finds himself similarly trapped in the glare of global headlights. However trying the struggle with Islamism may prove, whatever sacrifices it may demand, he cannot revive Lincoln's appeal to Christianity, no matter how nondenominational that appeal would be. His religious rhetoric must be "inclusive," anodyne, and sterile. His administration must become America's first genuinely Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jewish (and Muslim) one. And so the challenge of Islamic terror will collaborate with other forces to drive official America to ever greater lengths of secularism or syncretism.

Copyright of The Public Interest, Issue #155 (Spring 2004), National Affairs, Inc."

In other words, the URI's syncretism may fit perfectly with the Bush Administration's agenda in the war for the Middle East.

Kyrie eleison


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