First Amendment stands between Americans and religious chaos

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Few pilgrims will brave the streets of war-torn Bethlehem this Christmas. Candles lit at Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity will flicker against a dark backdrop of fear and violence.

What word of hope can be spoken in a world where even the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace” has become a war zone?

Tragically, this is an old story in the place known as “the cradle of biblical history.” Sacred to the children of Abraham — Jews, Christians and Muslims — Bethlehem-Judah has been seized and defended over the centuries by an endless succession of armies from all three faiths. Today, this beleaguered town of 27,000 souls (half Christian, half Muslim) continues to hold life-and-death significance for millions of people.

The more holy the ground, it seems, the more contentious the struggle to control it. Not only is Bethlehem the reputed birthplace of Jesus, but it also contains the Tomb of Rachel — Judaism’s third-holiest site. Here also is the place where Muslims believe Muhammad prayed on his way to Jerusalem during his famous Midnight Journey.

If we learn nothing else from this complex history, we should learn that religious differences matter – not just in ancient history, but in our own time.

Are Americans paying attention? It’s easy to be appalled by religious conflict abroad, while remaining tone-deaf to religious division at home. Perhaps we have become complacent, taking peaceful co-existence among American faith communities for granted. After all, despite periodic outbreaks of nativism and anti-Semitism, we have had no full-blown holy wars on American soil.

But the United States is far from immune to the threat of religious conflict. Our increasingly crowded public square is often a hostile place where citizens shout past one another across religious and philosophical differences that are deep and abiding. Incendiary rhetoric and personal attacks characterize many of these “culture-war” debates over abortion, homosexuality, school prayer and other divisive issues. And on the fringes, wars of words sometimes escalate into outbursts of hate and violence.

Americans forget (at our peril) that only the First Amendment stands between us and religious chaos. By preventing the confusion of government and religion — and simultaneously guarding the right of every person to choose in matters of faith — the United States has defied the precedents of history: We have managed to build one nation out of many peoples and faiths.

Within the principles and ground rules of religious freedom, religion can do much good for society and religious differences can be negotiated without violence. But when religion is joined to the power of the state or — as with al-Qaida and Hamas — hijacked for malevolent ends, religion becomes volatile and dangerous.

From Russia (where lawmakers are busy re-imposing the Russian Orthodox Church) to India (where Hindu nationalists just won a landslide victory in Gujarat state on an anti-Muslim platform), the unholy union of church and state is a leading source of oppression and coercion in a disturbing number of nations around the globe.

In a world darkened by sectarian violence and state repression, the United States can (and must) demonstrate that it’s possible — though certainly not easy — for people of deep religious differences to work together for the common good. That means living up to the promise of the First Amendment by ensuring that people of all faiths and none are treated with fairness and respect in American public life.

May this be our message of hope to the little town of Bethlehem — and to a suffering world.

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