Religion, Politics and the Public Square

Religion, Politics and the Public Square August 30, 2010

by Carol Hovis

The national uproar regarding the Cordoba House, a mosque and Muslim community center in New York City is a critical moment in the United States for all religions, for US politics and for the preservation of civil rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

It is no mistake that the First Amendment is first.  It is the bedrock of our democracy.

Up to this point in time, there has been no governmental interference with the Cordoba House initiative; their First Amendment right to freedom of religion has not been violated.  This is good news for our republic.

However, there has been an explosion on the internet, picked up by the mainstream media, of propaganda about Imam Feisal Abdul Raul and those who have been planning the NYC mosque.  The popular press and internet have fanned the flames of bigotry and hate, based on half-truths and outright lies.

On the positive side, the First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press are intact.  On the negative side, I believe the discourse in our public square is broken.  In my 20 years as an ordained Presbyterian minister, and the past six years as Executive Director of the Marin Interfaith Council, I have observed the tendency of thoughtful people, secular and religious, liberal, moderate and conservative, to be lethargic regarding our right of free speech in our civic conversations.  This includes me.

As long as a majority of concerned citizens remain passive spectators while a small minority of fringe ideologues whip up fear-mongering rhetoric about Muslims or any other “group” of people, our democracy is impoverished, even threatened by our silence.

I find good people of faith and conscience are reticent to speak up about controversial issues, whether in houses of worship or councils of government, because of the common misconception that expressing passionate views grounded in a religious or ethical belief system somehow violates the separation of religion and state.

The founders of this nation knew the disposition of institutions, both religious and political, to gravitate toward tyranny, without the proper checks and balances imbedded in our Constitution.  Also, the founders knew the inclination of individuals to persecute the “other”, those who are different from the majority.  For more than 200 years, our government has enacted laws to protect the civil rights of minority groups, albeit belatedly and imperfectly.

The current frenzy reaffirms for me the fundamental importance of interfaith, interreligious, multicultural work for the well-being of our nation and world.  The Marin Interfaith Council (MIC) seeks to contribute constructively to the public dialogue and debate on a myriad of issues, including immigration reform, homelessness and housing, Israel and Palestine, Proposition 8 and most recently on August 23rd, the Marin Education Achievement Gap.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote:  John Locke says ‘neither Pagan nor Mahomedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion… It is refusing toleration to those of different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion.”

As we commemorate the March on Washington, August 28th, let us remember one religious leader who understood the power of freedom to transform politics and the public discourse.

Forty-seven years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed: We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.

Now is the time to stand with Muslim Americans and all who know the virulence of prejudice and discrimination and say “No” to fear and “Yes” to the Dream of freedom for all.

Carol Hovis is an ordained Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of the Marin Interfaith Council in San Rafael, California.

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