Citizenship isn’t defined by religious affiliation

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Religion matters in a world torn by conflict over religious differences. And it matters in the United States — the most religiously diverse nation on Earth.

Before Sept. 11, many Americans took for granted our ability to live with deep religious differences in this country. And many of us ignored the role religion plays in world affairs.

Now we know better.

In the weeks following the terrible attacks on our nation, at least three Americans have been victims of hate crimes. All were killed for one reason and one reason only: They looked like Muslims. Only one actually was a Muslim. The other two were a Coptic Christian and a Sikh. All three were Americans.

What fuels this kind of hate and violence? Ignorance and fear. Judging from the volume of angry mail I get every time I write about religious diversity in America, far too many Americans still think of this as a “Christian nation” that (at best) tolerates other faiths enough to allow their adherents to live here. And far too many of us know little or nothing about the religions of our fellow citizens.

Fortunately, attacks on Muslim Americans are not typical of who we are as a people. There have been other, very different, messages about America in the painful aftermath of Sept. 11.

Here's one that says it all: the president of the United States standing in a mosque — in his stocking feet, no less — surrounded by American Muslim leaders and speaking out against prejudice and violence.

What's the message? Citizenship isn't defined by religious affiliation. The promise of the First Amendment is the promise of a level playing field for people of all faiths or none. In the words of the Williamsburg Charter, a 1988 reaffirmation of the First Amendment:

“A right for a Protestant is a right for an Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist — and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic.”

We don't have to agree with one another about religion. (In fact, we are free to try and persuade one another to the truth as we know it.) But if we're going to uphold our commitment to the First Amendment, we must do everything to guard the rights of all — even those with whom we deeply disagree.

Are we preparing American citizens to live up to this ideal? Yes and no.

On Sept. 12, teachers and administrators in one California high school (that shall remain nameless) couldn't answer questions about Islam and weren't sure how to discuss the tragic events with students. The curriculum rarely mentions religion, and there are very few opportunities for genuine dialogue among students about important issues confronting our nation. Confusion reigned in this school — and in many others around the nation.

Meanwhile, administrators and teachers in Modesto, Calif., knew exactly what to do on Sept. 12. Because they already have a course in world religions (a requirement for graduation), many students and teachers know about Islam. And because the district is committed to teaching the rights and responsibilities of the First Amendment, teachers and students regularly engage in discussions of important issues, including how to address religious differences in the community. No confusion there about how to respond to this crisis.

Schools that ignore religion and religious liberty take note. If we're going to move forward as one nation of many faiths, we'll need more districts like Modesto. We'll need schools that teach us about one another — and instill the civic virtues that sustain our democracy.

“Is there no virtue among us?” asked James Madison more than 200 years ago. “If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

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