Many of us who live in the United States regularly take for granted our freedom to worship as we choose. In particular, those of us who profess Christianity enjoy the relative comforts that a majority Christian society endows. Rarely are we forced to step outside the box of churchgoers proud of God and country and enter a space where those words mean very different things.
America’s interactions with its various religious traditions create ideological pillars for debate, challenge traditional understandings of religious freedom in the United States, and drive discussions of foreign policy.
The political right – if not in numbers of institutional members, then at least in the moral and philosophical roots of law and ethics – boasts many and varying versions of a “Judeo-Christian” narrative, some more thoughtful in their analysis of American traditions as being tied to ideas set forth in the Bible or in the history of Christianity or Judaism, and some merely manipulative of religious nomenclature, using labels to castigate any alternative points of view.
The political left, on the other hand, has long advertised itself as a more ideologically diverse group of individuals, many of whom see secularism as an essential element of American public life. Into this arena, many and various ideologies have been able to walk with greater freedom, ranging from non-Christian religious views such as Islam to secular ideologies such as Marxism or humanism. Notwithstanding this, much of the left has surrendered its visions of diversity and toleration at the altar of militant secularism, often unashamedly present in the public square as militant anti-religiosity.
While the political right and left fall more or less into these two camps, they are not absolutely bound to them with iron stakes. One can find Republicans who champion the cause of Muslims and Democrats who are devoutly committed to an almost exclusively Judeo-Christian narrative. And both the right and left have numerous members willing to live alongside of multiple narratives simultaneously, drawing from Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman elements alike while also showing deep respect to other faiths or philosophies and their role in shaping American history and society.
If it can be argued that we are at a crossroads in the political history of the United States, what with the San Andreas size fault line in the Democratic Party and the imminent reformation, if not the total disintegration of the Republican Party, then religious freedom and toleration has become a giant, brightly colored signpost for the entire global community to look at.
Trump’s comments on Muslims, Clinton’s comments on Christians needing to change their views on abortion, and even President Obama’s still-painful comments on those who cling to their guns and their religion have been among the most shocking tirades against religious freedom recently uttered in the United States.
But that’s not even the worst part. The ugliest truth about religious freedom in our current political culture is the idea that respecting one religious tradition necessarily means disrespecting others.
In this world, supporters of religious freedom for Muslims can be labelled as haters of God and country, somehow lumped into a basket with the worst terrorist groups in the world just because they believe that their friends who worship Allah, observe Ramadan, or wear a hijab deserve that freedom because it is due to every American. On the other hand, supporters of Christians or Jews can be seen as narrow-minded because supporting Israel must somehow limit religious and ethnic diversity in the Middle East, or legislation grounded in morals shared by biblical ethics must somehow be attempts to bring about theocracy in a democratic society.
It doesn’t take much thought to realize such mutually exclusive thinking accomplishes very little. Yet how often are our own leaders engaging in such behavior? The gag reel of Republican politicians making generalizations about Muslims either in or entering the United States and the distinctly biased comments of Democratic lawmakers jabbing at people of faith for their views on life and marriage are equally nauseating to people interested in seeing real character in the public square.
The way that we talk about religious freedom at home also affects our role in supporting religious freedom worldwide.
A failure to empathize with the various religious traditions in our own country can make us callous to globally resurgent anti-Semitism, the systemic targeting of Christians in Iraq and Syria, or the millions of Muslim refugees from the Syrian Civil War and other regional conflicts desperately seeking safety in wealthy countries such as Germany, the United States, Canada, or Australia.
Likewise, an inability to break with group-think in perceptions of major faiths can harm U.S. foreign policy and misrepresent our country to the rest of the world. Key examples that come to mind here are lawmakers or citizens wishing to give Israel a blank check for all it does (generally on the extreme political right) or those refusing to admit that any radical, perverted version of Islam could ever contribute to global terrorist threats or so-called states in the Middle East (generally, those on the political left).
What our country desperately needs is a break with the notion that respect for religious traditions must end in a duel of mutually exclusive paradigms. The United States isn’t a theocracy like Saudi Arabia or Iran, nor is it an autocratic state such as North Korea, nor is it a post-religious European Continent bent on systematically demeaning faith at nearly every turn. Moreover, this country is a place where debate and discussion are bedrocks to citizenship and society, where disagreement forges progress and kindles hope in an ability to break traditional thinking or to change it enough that more people are better off in the end.
It would be an incredible move forward if the American people dedicated themselves to indulge in principled pluralism. We need an unconventional approach to religious toleration if we want to help the world become a better and safer place. Right now, though, our society’s inability to think outside of strict, increasingly extreme, and diametrically opposed paradigms regarding religion and public life is creating chaos.
It’s one kind of despicable act when Jews aren’t welcome in a skinhead neighborhood, but when they aren’t welcome at Berkeley, that undermines our history as a place of freedom. When Muslims must flee civil war in Syria or the oppressive grip of Daesh, that’s one thing, but when their mosques are burned inside our own borders, our First Amendment is put to shame.
But even though there is shame in the current American political landscape, we have every reason to be optimistic that the ideas which never stopped making this country great will allow our nation, God willing, to move forward and change as it must.
We can learn to respect various religious traditions even as we draw clear moral lines. We can appreciate every human being and his or her right to free expression of faith. And we can revive the confidence and the character with which we once so proudly represented our commitment to freedom around the world by actually following what we say we believe in.
As Samuel P. Huntingdon wrote in The Clash of Civilizations,
Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.
In the end, America is a land of hope because it has and can once again be a society built upon ideas of principled pluralism. Though these ideas may diminish, they will not altogether fade. Though they be tested, they will still endure. It will not only take well-crafted laws and ideas to rediscover principled pluralism in our time, but it will perhaps more importantly require the prayerful, thoughtful engagement of the body of Christ to help ensure religious freedom at home and inspire it abroad. What such a collaborative effort would look like, however, is something that only time will tell.
Photo Credit: The Baltimore Sun