Religious Freedom 2009: Living with our Deepest Differences

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Let’s ring in the New Year with some good news about our country: Despite bitter culture wars, outbreaks of nativism, and pockets of intolerance, the United States begins 2009 as the boldest and most successful experiment in living with religious differences the world has ever known.

This is no small achievement in a world torn by religious hatred and sectarian violence. Christian vs. Muslim in Nigeria; Hindu vs. Buddhist in Sri Lanka; Muslim vs. Hindu in India … and the tragic list goes on.

The 20th century was plagued by the scourge of secular, totalitarian ideologies (fascism and communism). Now the 21st century is emerging as an era of political and social wars rooted in religious and ethnic differences.

In stark contrast, America — the most religiously diverse place on Earth — boasts many neighborhoods where church, temple, mosque, synagogue and other houses of worship co-exist side by side. Thanks to the First Amendment, Americans live and let worship — confining our disputes largely to wars of words or courts of law.

But now the bad news: We are not immune from the disease of religious intolerance. During the waning months of 2008, three incidents — all linked to the elections — were disturbing reminders that religious and political divisions can turn ugly and violent, even in the United States:

  • During the same week in September when an anti-Muslim DVD was widely distributed in Dayton, Ohio, someone sprayed a “chemical irritant” through a window of the Islamic Society building in Dayton. The room was filled with babies and children being kept there while their parents were at prayer. No one was seriously hurt, but the incident caused panic and shock among the children, families and care-givers.
  • After passage on Nov. 4 of California’s Proposition 8 (a ballot initiative banning gay marriage) at least 10 Mormon churches were vandalized and two others received suspicious white powder in the mail. Mormon institutions were targeted because church members contributed substantial time and money in support of Prop 8. Although most anti-Mormon protests were peaceful, not everyone was content to stay within the law.
  • On Dec. 12, a fire caused major damage to the Wasilla Bible Church in Wasilla, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin’s home church. During the campaign, the church was subjected to considerable public scrutiny and debate. Authorities believe the fire was deliberately set. Fortunately, the people inside, including two children, escaped unharmed.

Lawless attacks on houses of worship are still blessedly rare in America. Those who use such tactics are on the fringes of society and represent a small percentage of the population. Nevertheless, when intolerance grows — especially during hard times — the volatile mix of religion and politics can fuel outbreaks of violence and hate.

That’s why the real cautionary tales are the small stories, the little-noted religious tensions in neighborhoods and workplaces that are barometers of how well we are addressing religious differences on a daily basis.

Consider the Sikh who went to a community center in North Carolina before Thanksgiving to donate to the needy. “Take off your turban,” he was told. “This is the United States.” When he explained that he was required by his faith to wear the turban, the minister in charge ordered him and his wife to leave.

Or the Muslim woman in Georgia who was arrested in December for refusing to remove her head scarf before entering a courthouse. Although state law doesn’t prohibit head coverings in court, judges have the discretion to ban them. Muslim women in Georgia and other states are often ordered to choose between upholding their faith and gaining access to the courts.

Or the Hindu man in Virginia who is being fined by the homeowners association in his neighborhood for painting a six-foot religious drawing on his driveway (a symbol of welcoming to the home). Although none of his immediate neighbors objects, the association demands that he paint over the design.

These three people of three different faiths share one thing in common: They are all Americans. This isn’t your parents’ or grandparents’ country anymore – the “Protestant, Catholic, Jewish” America of the 1950s. We live in a new religious America.

Our challenge is to welcome the new by ringing out the old prejudices and stereotypes. Let’s resolve in 2009 to better understand one another — maybe by visiting that mosque down the street or reaching out to that family with the unfamiliar design in the driveway.

Americans have managed to negotiate deep religious differences for more than 200 years without going for the jugular. Let’s not fail now.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].