Don’t take religious freedom lightly

Sunday, July 27, 1997

After hours of participants talking past one another, a school
board meeting in New York disintegrated into a shouting match
over the use of religious symbols in the school lobby.

Finally,someone silenced the crowd by saying: “How fortunate we are
in America. Here we are arguing about crosses and menorahs in
the school lobby, while in much of the world people are killing
one another because of religious and ethnic differences. We should
thank God that this is all we have to fight about!”

After that outburst, everyone calmed down and began the process
of finding a solution to the dispute. All of those angry citizens
were made to remember that with all of our problems and challenges,
the United States is not Bosnia. When we work at it, we are able
to live with even our deepest differences.

Americans tend to forget that religious differences can provoke
strong emotions and open historic wounds. Consider the current
wars throughout the world. From Sri Lanka to the Middle East to
Northern Ireland, ancient “holy wars” in modern dress
destroy lives and communities on a daily basis. On any given day
we can read in our newspapers of the Muslim killed for selling
land to a Jew, the Chinese Christian arrested for practicing his
faith, the Belfast housemaker stabbed for being a Catholic,
the Tamil Hindu child caught in the crossfire of civil war between
Hindus and Buddhists — and the tragic list goes on.

For most Americans, such hatred and violence rooted in religious
differences is remote and incomprehensible. After all, the last
genuine holy war in what is now the United States took place in
1560s, when the French Protestants and Spanish Catholics took
turns massacring one another in Florida.

America's good fortune is no accident. The religious liberty clauses
of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof …”) provide a civic framework that has enabled
us to build one nation out of many peoples and faiths. For the
first time in history, a nation was founded with a strong commitment
to protect the inalienable right of every person to practice their
faith openly and freely without governmental interference. Our
commitment to “no establishment” and “free exercise”
has worked to produce the most religiously diverse society on
earth and, by all accounts, the most religious of Western nations.

Before we indulge in too much self-congratulation, however, we
need to recall that we are not immune from religious conflict.
From the anti-Catholic riots of the 19th century to the most recent
attacks on churches and synagogues, America has its own story
of religious bigotry. Today some of our most bitter public policy
debates are rooted in religious differences. We are beginning
to discover that the angry rhetoric and ugly lawsuits of our “culture
wars” can sometimes provoke violence. As Charles Colson wrote
after the killing of a doctor at an abortion clinic several years
ago, “a democracy poisoned by hatred and division can be
as dangerous as the streets of Sarajevo.”

The next time we get overheated at a school board meeting or angry
about something in the curriculum, we should remember that how
we debate is almost as important as what we debate. If
we win our argument but tear apart the fabric of our community
in the process, then we have won little.

Under the First Amendment, all of us have the right to argue for
our convictions-including our religious convictions-in the public
square. But our experiment in religious liberty depends not only
on exercising our rights but also on taking responsibility as
citizens to debate with civility and respect.