Most Americans, religious or not, agree on the importance of religious freedom as enshrined in the First Amendment, though they disagree about specifics. Should the government promote religion? Give special tax breaks to religion? Favor one religion over another? Favor religion over non-religion? My answers are no, no, no, and no, and also no to the claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
American interests often trump religious freedom abroad. Take our oil-rich ally Saudi Arabia, for example, probably the most theocratic country in the Middle East. Our government doesn’t loudly protest Saudi Arabia’s denial of basic human rights to women, as it imposes Islamic law on its citizens. Although 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, we attacked Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with it. We attacked Iraq because, well, I’m still not sure.
While I often don’t know what we should do about complex foreign policy, I do know what we should not do either abroad or at home. We should not tell citizens or governments how to interpret holy books. Regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, I think we can all come up with many good reasons to condemn suicide bombings. Unfortunately, our government came up with a bad reason. Presumably after delving deeply into nuances in the Koran, our State Department pronounced recent Iraq suicide bombers to be “enemies of Islam.”
There are interpretations of the Koran that justify suicide bombings, and interpretations that do not. There are interpretations of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles that justify killing infidels, and interpretations that do not. Did Jesus come to bring peace or a sword? In an attempt to ease troubles in Egypt, Pope Francis recently observed that faith and violence are incompatible. Not if you read a comprehensive history of religion.
I’ve heard debates between liberal and conservative Christians about whether homosexuality is natural or sinful. If I were judging based on their biblical arguments alone, I’d unfortunately have to decide that the winner is “sin.”
We are a secular country with secular laws that apply to all citizens. Our religious freedom allows individuals to practice and promote any religion or no religion without government interference. We can encourage other countries (and our own) to support human rights for humanistic reasons, but not by interpreting holy books. If we play with religion cards, the theocrats will always find alternate interpretations.
While our support for religious freedom abroad might have limited resultants, we must remain vigilant at home. Sharia law may be a problem in some Islamic countries, but not a possibility in secular America. That hasn’t stopped legislators, including some in my home state of South Carolina, from introducing bills to prevent Sharia law from being imposed on us. S.C. State Senator Mike Fair, a conservative Christian, introduced such a bill. His other bills have included mandating that sex education classes teach abstinence only, and that homosexual behavior is unnatural, unhealthy and illegal. An anti-evolutionist, he would also encourage public school teachers to critique evolution in their classrooms. Ironically, such bills sound a lot more like what you might expect from an Islamic country than a secular one. Fundamentalists in different religions have a lot in common, usually to the detriment of those who support religious freedom and diversity.
The esteemed legislators in South Carolina also decided on a foreign policy with Israel. A resolution passed in the state General Assembly refers to Israel’s “God-given right” to its territory. Reasonable secular arguments can be made about who deserves what territory, with the hope that there will eventually be a peaceful Middle East solution. But the South Carolina resolution implies that South Carolina and Israel are both governed by theocracies.
And talking about strange bedfellows, I find myself in bed with Louisiana Rep. Valarie Hodges because she no longer backs Gov. Bobbie Jindal’s school voucher program. She became horrified to discover that public money would go to Muslim schools in her state, not just to Christian schools. In her own words: “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools. I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”
I can’t think of a better argument for the separation of religion and government than the unintentional one provided by Rep. Hodges.
Image courtesy of Ed Uthman.