In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.
Politico’s Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration “clearly sees an opportunity,” signaling “that they’re hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they’re going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses” in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.
Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?
In many ways the question boils down to whether one prioritizes the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) or the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me.”) Many cultures have a difficult time reconciling the two. But a truly secular posture allows the two to coexist not just harmoniously but in a mutually respectful way.
By “secular” I don’t mean “non-religious,” let alone “anti-religious.” I mean “worldly,” or perhaps “cosmopolitan.” A truly secular posture recognizes that there are multiple religious and ideological perspectives, and chooses not to choose among them–more specifically, chooses not to have governing authorities choose among them.
Such a posture is intolerable for those whose convictions render them incapable of permitting what they consider anathema, be it “idolatry” or (as in the case of many totalitarian regimes of the 20th century) religious faith. For such people to permit any religious expression outside the bounds of their own constitutes participation in such blasphemy, with all the attendant social harms that would cause.
Others of us recognize that legal compulsion does not effect genuine faith, and indeed violates human dignity to a horrifying degree. Not only would we fight to uphold the right of somebody to say something with which we disagree, we would lay down our own lives to protect the rights of somebody to worship a god we consider false. A beautiful expression of this posture was found in the Muslims who formed a human shield around Christian worshippers in Tahrir Square during the protests there, just as those Christians had done for their Muslim neighbors two days prior.
Ultimately such a secular posture derives from one of two assumptions about religious faith and human involvement in it. The first is that it doesn’t matter, so people should be free to do as they please. The second is that it matters more than anything else, so people must be free to choose the good, which requires that they also be able to choose (and practice) the bad. Those of us who believe the stakes are as high as they possibly could be when it comes to faith commitments have the option of choosing to persuade toward authentic faith rather than to compel toward cowed submission.
Many of the Founders were in the former camp, to be sure, but there was no shortage of those in the second. Both saw the wisdom in pursuing a secular course. Whether other nations may long endure will be for their leaders–and their people–to decide.