New York is awash in tourists – 49 million in 2010, most ever, many of them foreign. Some partake of abundance, some go diligently to famous sites, but most just seem to enjoy the freedom they find here. They walk here and there, lose the white T-shirts and buy black, savor street life.

In Washington, meanwhile, freedom is anathema. Never mind that Americans voted overwhelmingly for their first black President. In some eyes he is simply illegitimate, and they will do anything to stop him, even crash the economy.

Even though every measure shows free Americans overwhelmingly in favor of Social Security, Medicare, jobs programs, and government doing what only government can do, a small cadre of zealots have decided to hold the nation hostage to deny people what they freely choose.

It is strange to see freedom so treasured at ground level and so despised in the corridors of power.


Q: Why do many right-wing religious people show hatred towards people of other religious beliefs and sometimes commit violence against them?

A: The pathology of religious extremism is a tragic story. Otherwise decent people get caught up in powerful convictions that leave no room for nuance or other points of view. Sometimes they are egged on by persuasive leaders, sometimes they do it to themselves, but the typical scenario is this:

I believe. I believe so strongly that my belief becomes the center of my life. I cannot bear to be around people who don’t believe as I do. Those people are wrong, indeed they are evil. They are dangerous to true believers and must be removed. I am called as a true believer to get rid of them. I can use whatever means I want. I am right, and God rewards me for it.

Most believers get off this train to destruction pretty early. Their faith takes the expression of love, not right-opinion, and in that love, they experience the diversity of God’s creation and understand other points of view as different, not wrong or evil.

Some believers don’t get the message of love, just the ego-flattering message that they are right and everybody else is wrong. What comes next can be scary. Religious extremism has no fallback position, because the believer’s entire person, identity, ego and life-purpose are tied up in being right. There is no room for compromise. Just a relentless drive toward violence in word and deed.

Time for more questions. Just use the reply or comment button to send me your question.

Photo: Summer street fair, Greenwich Village