Let’s start the New Year with good news: With all of our challenges and flaws, the United States begins 2008 as the world’s boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom. Where else do citizens of every faith or no faith enjoy as much liberty to practice religion (or not) without government interference?
Of course, a cynic might say we don’t have much competition. In a world plagued by religious wars, state persecution of religion, and sectarian strife, religious freedom remains the most-desired but least-protected human right for millions of people throughout the world.
Our relative good fortune, however, shouldn’t lull us into thinking it can’t happen here. Complacency is the great enemy of freedom, especially in a nation of exploding religious diversity and bitter culture wars.
Of the many signs of danger to religious freedom in America, here are my nominees for two of the most disturbing trends in 2007 to worry about in 2008.
First, the unhealthy mixture of God and politics in the presidential campaign:
So religion-saturated is this election cycle that Beliefnet.com created a “God-o-meter” to track the shameless, mostly fatuous, invocation of religion by candidates seeking to appear holier-than-thou.
2007 was the year Democrats got religion — and now they’re competing mightily for the Almighty vote. The God-o-meter reports that Bill Richardson got so carried away in front of an Iowa crowd last week that he told them the state needed to preserve its first-caucus status “for constitutional reasons, for reasons related to the Lord.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans appear to be running for Christian-in-Chief. Mike Huckabee advertises himself as a “Christian Leader,” Mitt Romney scrambles to prove he’s a true Christian and John McCain tells a reporter he thinks the Constitution establishes a “Christian nation.”
Enough already. The U.S. Constitution establishes a secular republic, mandates “no religious test” for public office and guarantees full religious liberty for every citizen.
Politicians, like any American, are free to talk about their faith. But when they use religious language to signal preference for one group over others — or suggest that one group should somehow be privileged by government — they violate the spirit of the First Amendment and undermine religious freedom.
Personally, I think Roger Williams got it right in the 17th century: A truly Christian nation cannot be a Christian nation in any official or legal sense of the term. As Williams read the Gospel, God requires that liberty of conscience be protected for all people. That means no government entanglement with any religion in a society where everyone has the right to choose freely in matters of faith.
Second, the rise of Islamophobia (an irrational fear or condemnation of all Muslims or Islam):
2007 began on a hopeful note with the swearing in of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American to serve in the U.S. Congress. But the year ended badly when John Deady, co-chair of the New Hampshire Veterans for Rudy, told a British newspaper last week that Muslims should be chased “back to their caves.” When asked if he meant all Muslims, he replied: “I don’t subscribe to the principle that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. They’re all Muslims.”
Because such sentiments are (for now, at least) politically unacceptable, Deady had to resign from Giuliani’s campaign. But sadly his views about Muslims are shared by a growing number of Americans — including some leading Christian pastors who want to recast the “war on terrorism” as a “war on Islam.”
Not only are these people wrong about Islam, they are propagating views that are dangerous for American Muslims — and for our national security. We need to work with Muslims who oppose terrorism across the globe, not demonize their faith. And we need to fight anti-Muslim bias at home, not encourage attacks on our fellow citizens.
We can do better in 2008, but only if enough Americans take seriously their civic duty to defend religious freedom, not just for themselves but for people of all faiths and none.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: email@example.com.