A Troubling Disrespect for Religious Toleration

If there is any American principle I have taken for granted since I was a little boy, it is freedom of religion. And indeed, this is one area where the United States comes close to living up to its professed values. Most of the world has state-sanctioned religions and churches. In the United States, ever since the American Revolution and even before, the doctrines of religious liberty have animated the nation’s political ideals. Notably, Thomas Jefferson’s grave does not mention his presidency, yet it boasts the man’s involvement in securing the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.

Yet something nasty has happened in this country, particularly since 9/11, and it became worse recently. I’m referring to a growing threat of intolerance against Muslims. We saw it in the controversy over the Cordoba House in downtown Manhattan—the so-called “Ground-Zero Mosque” debate. The Bush administration was careful rhetorically to oppose the demonization of Muslims, thus neutralizing the most vociferous religious bigots partisan to that presidency and holding their discontent beneath the surface. No longer restrained by the desire not to gainsay a president they favored for political reason, the peddlers of this ugliness have now been unleashed. Under Obama one can more easily claim to oppose the president and accuse him of being insufficiently anti-Muslim. And we see the hatred now in the musings of a presidential candidate being seriously touted by many conservatives as a potentially great alternative to Barack Obama, or other Republicans.

Herman Cain was asked to clarify his position on local prohibitions on mosques. He reiterates that communities have the right to enact such bans, out of concern that an increased Islamic presence will bring Sharia law into their neighborhoods. He has also confirmed he would be uncomfortable with Muslims in the cabinet.

This notion of his that American Islam represents an institutional threat to liberty is particularly dangerous, and its growing popularity should disturb us all. First of all, the notion that Islam itself is inherently legally prescriptive and its growth in the United States will bring with it a hijacking of the legal system is a misunderstanding. The fear of Sharia is also, in itself, misguided, as it does not always take on the medieval character often associated with it, any more than the common law is always bound by the punitive measures common in England in the Middle Ages. Sharia law looks different in every nation. Even if it somehow grew in the United States, it would not resemble what is seen in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. In fact, the existence of religious legal institutions is not in itself a threat to freedom, but can to the contrary be compatible with liberty, coexisting with a secular legal system so long as it is adhered to voluntarily and the principles of subsidiarity are respected.

Yet this is all beside the point, since Mosques are not the same as Sharia law in the first place. Any attempt at any level of government to ban places of worship of any kind are at least as much a threat to freedom and the American way of life, insofar as this is a noble, admirable thing, as is any plot concocted in the name of Islamist extremism. Such attempts run counter to property rights as well, and for that reason too should be adamantly resisted.

Religion is a deeply intimate and profound part of people’s lives, and freedom and toleration are absolutely fundamental to any free civilization. The reason the United States has done so well compared to the Old World in respect to its various religious factions—the reason religious peace characterizes America whereas religious sectarianism and strife plague much of the world—is that the American tradition is one of religious freedom, toleration, and separation of church and state. Efforts to prohibit the practice of Islam are not only counterproductive, pushing religious practices underground, radicalizing Muslims and leading to increased animosity; they are an evil in themselves. That a presidential candidate who so openly rejects the grand American heritage of religious liberty is so passionately favored by large portions of the electorate marks a very disturbing trend.

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