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An attack on American tolerance

BACK IN the 1950s, political scientists celebrated America for its "pluralism." That meant people had multiple, cross-cutting identities. Maybe you were a Catholic and also a trade unionist, a sport fisherman, a member of a veterans group, and an engaged PTA parent in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. No single identity absolutely defined you.

Why was this special? Because it created multiple, overlapping communities and prevented the cultural or political absolutism that plagued most societies. It wove tolerance and political suppleness into the fabric of American democracy. People with multiple affiliations could vote for Roosevelt one year and Eisenhower another and not hate neighbors for their party identities.

Indeed, when the philanthropist George Soros set out to undermine communism by stealth in Eastern Europe, he began by subsidizing innocent-seeming voluntary associations of the sort for which Americans are famous in order to quietly break the regime's stranglehold on institutions of all kinds. Imagine the surprise of the commissars when chess clubs turned out to be hotbeds of independent thinking.

America has done this longer, better, and more democratically than any other society, but it is not the only example. In Sarajevo, under both the Turks and later the communists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians enjoyed a cultural coexistence. Under the crumbling Ottoman Empire, diverse ethnic groups lived together without killing each other. And for nearly 300 years in medieval Spain, under history's most liberal Arab regime ever, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony guaranteed by the regime. A citizen could be both a Jew and an Arab and think of himself as Andalusian.

All these societies of tolerance and multiple identity came to grief, and there are dangerous portents that America is heading the same way. If ever most Americans took on monochromatic identities -- evangelical, Republican, and gun-toting conservatives versus abortion-defending, secular, Democratic liberals -- our democracy would be seriously at risk.

The problem is not that America has hardened into red states and blue ones. That vocabulary should be expunged from media shorthand, because it makes a distressing trend seem far more rigid than it is.

In fact, there are rational secular liberals in Texas and religious fundamentalists in Boston. More important, most people who worship God are not yet intolerant of people who worship in different ways or not at all.

The problem, rather, is first, that religious fundamentalists have lately become more absolutist and more insistent. For centuries in the United States (which, after all, was founded on the principle of religious pluralism and tolerance) religion was mostly a personal affair. Keeping religion out of the American Constitution was the triumph of reason over absolutism, and it made America safe for a wide diversity of creeds.

For millennia, faith and reason have co-existed uneasily. They skirmished as far back as the Middle Ages, when Christian theologians nervously contemplated the rediscovery of Aristotle, and later when Galileo was condemned as a heretic. But in most of the West, reason won.

In Europe, religion remains a source of personal comfort, community bonding, and association with cherished traditions. But organized religion no longer rules. Regular church attendance is low, women in Catholic Italy and Spain divorce, use contraceptives, and sometimes have abortions; and the idea that dogma should override science on something like stem-cell research or AIDS prevention strikes most Europeans as bizarre.

In the United States, meanwhile, reason is on the defensive as we head backward toward creationism and religious absolutism. This is one of those moments when people all over the world, threatened by cultural and economic assaults far beyond their local control, are turning to fundamentalisms. Author Ben Barber sums it up in three words: Jihad vs. McWorld.

What is uniquely alarming in the United States today, among all the democracies and in our own history, is that a president of the United States is explicitly on the side of antimodernism. Never before has an American chief executive worked deliberately to foment a fundamentalist absolutism that is ultimately tribal, theocratic, antiscientific, and incompatible with pluralist democracy.

What are we who believe in reason and democracy to do? We need to revive the American tradition of appealing to citizens based on their multiple selves, including family selves, civic selves, and economic ones. We need an uncharacteristically fierce alliance of the tolerant -- good people of diverse faiths who share a basic humility about the multiple ways to worship, or not.

Despite George W. Bush's dangerous role as self-appointed proselytizer in chief, most Americans are not yet zealots. God help America if they ever are.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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