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Why I'm Not Afraid of Religion in America and What Does Frighten Me

Khizr Khan was right to hold up the United States constitution. It’s the strongest argument in the debate about the role and rights of Muslims in America. In fact it’s the strongest argument when discussing any religion in the United States.

The United States constitution says three things about religion: In the main body of the constitution, the only mention of religion is in article 6, which says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The first amendment to the constitution focuses more directly on religion, saying, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, under our constitution, we may not require a religious test for those seeking public office nor can we establish a state religion or prohibit the free exercise of a religion.

Over the years since the constitution was written, the first amendment has been interpreted in various ways. Increasingly over the years, particularly in the last half century, prohibition of a state religion has been interpreted to mean that the government may not assume the trappings of one religion or another in its buildings, memorials, the holidays it observes, etc., with exceptions made for observances that have become cultural traditions, such as Christmas or Easter, or nondenominational references to God such as in the Pledge of Allegiance or swearing in of officials or in witnesses in courtrooms. Government prohibition of the “free exercise of religion” has given official sanction to prayer of any type, wearing religious attire in government jobs (so long as it did not interfere with doing the job), and even allowing religious groups that oppose birth control to not have to conform to laws that mandate inclusion of birth control in employer provided insurance.

Freedom of religion can provide contentious arguments within the U.S., but all citizens and the government agree to abide by the Supreme Court decisions that interpret the constitutional or legal basis of particular challenges to this freedom. This situation, which is similar to that in nearly all democratic Western nations, is what protects us from one or another religion imposing its practices or beliefs upon the rest of us. This is not true in other areas of the world where one or another religion and government are wedded to one another.

I remember when people worried about John F. Kennedy’s Catholic religion dictating his actions as President of the United States. People cited a mythical rule that all Catholics had to “take orders from the Pope.” That, of course didn’t happen, and now we think nothing of electing a Catholic president. We haven’t yet elected a Jewish president, although we have had a Jewish Vice Presidential candidate, and no Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Atheist has been a presidential candidate of either major party.

People now worry about Muslims coming into our country and wanting to impose their religion and their religious laws on the rest of us. They point to all of the Muslim countries in which some form of Sharia Law is enshrined in the laws of the land and even in the country’s constitution. We have seen fundamentalist revolutionary groups impose Sharia Law on the citizens in some Middle Eastern groups after the existing government has been overthrown. And there is the example of Saudi Arabia, where Sharia Law and secular law are intertwined and so-called Sharia Police enforce laws alongside secular police. Some Muslim refugee groups in Europe have asked to have Sharia law govern their neighborhoods and to have so-called Sharia Courts or Sharia Councils decide people’s fates in those neighborhoods. Shouldn’t we be afraid here in the U.S.?

We should not be afraid. Our constitution dealt with this issue over two hundred years ago and religious freedom was the victor. We are a nation of laws and the constitution sets the parameters for what can become law and what can’t. In the United States people are free to follow their religion and even its own laws, so long as they do not violate the rights of anyone else or violate our secular laws, but they are not allowed to impose their religion or its tenets on anyone else. That is a hard and fast rule of life in America and one that is guaranteed by our constitution. One cannot discriminate against others on the basis of religion and one cannot be discriminated against on the basis of one’s own religion. The only challenge we have to this rule is from those who are afraid of religions other than their own.

Donald Trump recommended restricting visitors to the United States on the basis of their having Islam as their religion. He also recommended surveillance of Islamic mosques. Ted Cruz, when he was a presidential candidate, actually voted against an amendment to a bill that would prohibit such discrimination and added his recommendation of increased police patrols in “Muslim neighborhoods.”

The most dangerous recommendation came from the mouth of Newt Gingrich, following the Nice terror attack. Gingrich called for a “religious test” for Muslim Americans, which if they failed would lead to their deportation. He said, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.”

What protects the United States from laws based upon any religion is our constitution. That same constitution also forbids restricting freedom of people to practice their religion. Trump, Cruz and Gingrich have all called for violating that very constitutional guarantee that protects us. They are not alone. Arizona state senator Sylvia Allen suggested a state law mandating church attendance.

These actions make me want to hold up a copy of the constitution to these people and ask, “Have you ever read this?”

I’m an atheist. Religion is not good for me, but I’m not sure that it’s not good for some people. I’m also not sure that it’s not bad for many people. But I don’t fear religion, because I live in the United States where our laws protect me from that, just as they protect someone who practices religion from having me make laws that burden their beliefs and actions. But we will lose those protections if we fall prey to those people who want to change our laws and our constitution to go after one religion. Our stance on religion in America is our guarantee of having it and of not being afraid of it,  and we can’t afford to lose that guarantee by trying to protect just that part of religious freedom that agrees with our viewpoint. Everyone follows the constitution in America or we no longer have the country we all believe in.

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  • Response
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Reader Comments (2)

I agree about religious freedom and civil rights. Terrorist attacks freak people out and if we're not careful our leaders might start following fear instead of wisdom. The shootings/bombings recently should make us think about reforming our nation in other ways, community level outreach with a focus on valuing individuals. People always pull together after a tragedy, but it isn't long before we start forgetting to care about each other. People are less likely to hate and lash out when there's a strong element of love in society. There are a lot of parallels to the Sixties when the war and social conflict prompted a cultural move toward peace, love, and harmony. Aside from the immorality that accompanied it the hippie movement helped ease the harshness brought on by stressed out, scared, divided people. A kingdom divided can not stand.

August 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

Thanks for the comment. I agree.

August 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

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