INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- On the left side of today's highly charged political climate, deeply held religious beliefs are often taken as a sign of below-average intelligence and an intolerant nature. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald opined in his essay The Crack Up, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." In other words, being deeply religious and highly intelligent is not only plausible -- it's practical.
These days, if you tell people you are a religious Christian or Muslim you will more than likely be tagged as "fundamentalist" by the agnostic power elite. These self-appointed opinion leaders fail to grasp the significant difference between deeply held religious beliefs and fundamentalism. A short study of a vanished civilization in a rarely acknowledged moment in history puts the ability to hold two opposing ideas into a valuable contemporary perspective.
The place was al Andalus, the Islamic nation residing on the majority of the Iberian Peninsula from 755 A.D. until the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty shortly after the turn of the first Millennium. It was a place ruled by deeply religious Muslims who shared their social, political, and philosophical lives with equally devout Jews and Christians. Despite their intractable religious differences, this society nourished a complex culture of tolerance. According to Andalusian scholar Maria Rosa Menocal, "It found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions -- within oneself, as well as within one's culture -- could be positive and productive."
From the days of John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" speech, we of the New World -- lately referred to as The United States of America --have considered ourselves a beacon of tolerance and enlightenment. And in respects, apart from brief periods like the 1960s, we have been able to excel in every field of endeavor while remaining, in religious terms, pretty pious. Al Andalus set a similar and much earlier precedent. In 955 a Saxon nun by the name of Hroswitha, referred to the nation, and specifically to its capital city of Cordoba as "the ornament of the world."
Here was a land ruled by religious Muslims who co-habitated, co-mingled, and co-conspired with equally religious Christians and Jews. And they thrived.
The ultimate fall of Islamic al Andalus resulted not from Latinate Christian encroachment from the North, but rather from internal political cabals and, ultimately, conquest by the less tolerant and most definitely fundamentalist Islamic empires of North Africa. What the history of Western civilization would have looked like had al Andalus avoided internecine implosion is a tantalizing exercise in alternative history.
So let's shout it from the rooftops -- being deeply religious is not the same as being fundamentalist. That's simplistic dominant media elitism.
But repeat it enough times and it begins to sound like, er, the gospel truth. The truth is that it's both possible and practical to believe in both God and Man. The 12th century Christian theologian Peter Abelard referred to this challenge of contradiction as the "yes and no" as opposed to the more simplistic "yes or no."
More importantly, if we want our nation to remain -- some might say recapture -- its position as the world's "City Upon a Hill," we should remember what got us there in the first place. Belief in God. Belief in learning. Belief in progress. Belief in our fellow man. Toleration of dissent. And belief that sometimes -- indeed oftentimes -- there are things we can learn from people who pray in a different house of God -- or choose not to pray at all. As al Andalus was populated with the three "peoples of the book," so too are we today. It's a tremendous strength to exploit -- if we can avoid destroying ourselves first.
Peter J. Pitts is a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Communications and an adjunct professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.