A group of American Christians, most of them evangelicals, met for four days last weekend with a distinguished group of Moroccans at Eastern Mennonite University, concluding with a public session Monday at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center. To an outsider, the point of the conclave was not easy to fathom. It opened with a showing of a terrifying film about nuclear threats: Countdown to Zero, and concluded with heartfelt statements of shared interests and values. What was it all about? Why did Morocco’s busy ambassador to the United States and other distinguished Moroccans devote so much time to the discussion?
Richard Cizik, founder of a new movement of evangelicals he describes as “young in spirit” (the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good) gave some clues as he spoke Monday. Quoting from a post-2010 election survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, he noted that while 45 percent of Americans said they thought the values of Islam are at odds with American values, the figure was much higher (57 percent) for white evangelicals who responded to the survey. This was the highest recorded percentage among the defined groups (Catholics followed with 53 percent). We must, Cizik said, combat the lurking and dangerous idea that Islam is the new “evil empire”.
So last weekend’s event, which builds on a several-year partnership with the Moroccan government, was intended to eliminate some of the mistaken ideas, to build a sense of a shared common interest, and to dig into some topics that generate both misunderstandings and genuine disagreement.
Nuclear threats, the perils of climate change and terrorism were discussed as common, shared interests, and it did not prove difficult to establish the sense that there is indeed a shared concern. More significantly, discussion of the reasons why citizens care about these global threats underscored a message that the very different participants shared common values.
The focus on Morocco brought up the often forgotten fact that Morocco was the first foreign country to recognize the fledgling United States, in 1777. Morocco takes special pride in its history of multi-faith harmony (with a centuries-old Jewish population) and its contemporary focus on tolerance and moderation. And Morocco has benn gaining Christian residents as it becomes a “Florida for Europe,” where many retire to enjoy the sun and culture.
One area of disagreement arose when the group delved into what they meant by religious freedom. For the evangelical group, freedom of religion means freedom not only to practice one’s faith without interference from the government but also to share that faith freely with others, including inviting others to convert to Christianity. The Moroccans described their understanding of the term as a genuine freedom to practice one’s beliefs but not to proselytize, which is against the law in Morocco. That is the law of the land, they stressed, made by Moroccans and not to be changed by outside fiat. The participants agreed to disagree, respectfully, and to keep the conversation going.
What seemed to rile the Moroccan participants most was their sense that some proselytizing comes under false pretenses. They said people come to Morocco claiming that they are opening a business or studying when their real goal is to convert Moroccans to Christianity. This, they said, destabilizes the society, and explains why a few Christians have been asked to leave or are not permitted to reenter Morocco. They noted that similar restrictions apply to other faith groups, including Muslims. The idea of restrictions on a free expression of faith likewise riled some of the evangelical participants.
Richard Cizik laid out three scenarios of how religion and state are related. The first is a “sacred public square,” the historical model where church and state are formally linked and religion shapes public policy. There are many Americans, he noted, who hold such a view, holding that America is a Christian nation with a “moral majority” shaped by Christian values. A second view is the “naked public square,” where religion is excluded from public policy and institutions and “legal secularism” prevails. The third he terms a “civil public square” where there is deep and genuine respect for all faiths (and for those who profess no faith), and no one faith is privileged. This third “civil” option is what he sees as best suited both to allow for real freedom of religion and to address the malaise that colors American views of religion and especially Islam.
Working together to define better what the civil public square might mean, whether in Morocco or Egypt or the United States, and exploring the different forms it can take is an exercise that is well worthwhile. The question of why the busy Moroccan ambassador chose to participate in the effort is answered by appreciating the depth of feeling among both the evangelicals and the Moroccans about different interpretations of what it means, and a sense of a shared interest in working through those differences.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
February 15, 2011; 2:50 PM ET
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