Is Religious Freedom an Instrument of National Unity in America Today?

By: Kambiz GhaneaBassiri

May 24, 2021

Responding to: Healing Muslim-Christian Relations in the United States

Is Religious Freedom an Instrument of National Unity in America Today?

When in her new book, The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America, Asma Uddin advocates for religious freedom as a “superordinate goal” around which conservative Christians and American Muslims can rally, she participates in a longstanding tradition in American politics of appealing to religious freedom as a foundational ideal around which Americans of diverse religious backgrounds can unite. The makers of this tradition are familiar names to students of American history. They include the founders of the nation, who enshrined the separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights, as well as early historians of religion in America who saw in the de-establishment of religion an argument for American exceptionalism.

[Uddin] participates in a longstanding tradition in American politics of appealing to religious freedom as a foundational ideal around which Americans of diverse religious backgrounds can unite.

“The United States is the only country in all Christendom where perfect religious liberty exists,” wrote the pioneering historian of religions in America Robert Baird in the mid-nineteenth century, “and I can not (sic) but think that the very freedom from a thousand perplexing and agitating collisions, from which we see the governments of other countries in the Christian world suffering, furnishes one of the most powerful arguments that can be conceived in favor of leaving religion to its own resources, under the blessing of its adorable Author. Whatever diversity of opinion may exist among Christians in America on other subjects, there is none on this subject.” 

In more recent years, President George W. Bush appealed to religious freedom as a uniquely American ideal to unite all Americans, including American Muslims, after the attacks of 9/11. Standing in the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. on September 17, 2001, he defended American Muslims’ right to practice their religion publicly: “Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.” Six years later, at a rededication ceremony of the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., he further elaborated, “The freedom of worship is so central to America’s character that we tend to take it personally when that freedom is denied to others.”

President George W. Bush appealed to religious freedom as a uniquely American ideal to unite all Americans, including American Muslims, after the attacks of 9/11.

Ironically, the administration of the same president who uttered these words also shut down American Muslim charities for purportedly supporting terrorism and increased scrutiny and surveillance of American Muslims. An explanation of this irony can be found in Bush’s speech when he argues that in a nation that upholds religious freedom as a foundational ideal, the only religious people who will not be tolerated are those who “use religion as a path to power and a means of domination.” In other words, the state can interfere in religion when its own power and security is at stake. 

In 2021, it is noteworthy that an American Muslim lawyer is taking up the mantle of religious freedom to call for the healing of national divisions and to remind conservative evangelicals that their attempts to exclude Muslims from the nation is a form of religious domination that counters the fundamental principles of American democracy. The publication of Uddin’s book reminds us that if religious freedom has been foundational to the construction of America’s political character, it is an ideal that, since at least the late-nineteenth century, has been sustained and renewed by religious minorities. It is telling that a 2019 survey of Christian-Muslim relations sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that 66% of American evangelicals “think that American Muslims have been discriminated against based on their faith,” but only 28% opposed Trump’s attempt to symbolically exclude Muslims from the American body politic through a series of executive orders that came to be known as Trump’s “Muslim ban.” By contrast, 70% of American Muslims opposed Trump’s Muslim ban, but only 58% reported that they felt discriminated against because of their faith. 

If religious freedom has been foundational to the construction of America’s political character, it is an ideal that has been sustained and renewed by religious minorities.

These numbers show that although evangelical Christians are somewhat more likely than American Muslims to recognize religious discrimination against Muslims, they are far more likely to politically support discriminatory state policies. American Muslims, on the other hand, are far more likely than evangelical Christians to politically oppose discriminatory state policies but somewhat less likely than evangelical Christians to see themselves as objects of religious discrimination. Clearly, religious freedom as a political ideal is experienced differently by American Muslims and evangelical Christians. It is the minority religious community that is aware of the fragility of religious freedom and more vigilant of discriminatory state policies. 

An appeal to religious freedom to “heal Muslim-Christian relations in a post-Christian America,” is thus an attempt to prevail upon conservative evangelicals that they too should see their rights as politically vulnerable and thus work with American Muslims to defend religious freedom as a unifying political ideal. This effort wagers that political activism in defense of religious liberty will impel conservative evangelicals to see Muslims as equal members of the American body politic and somehow forget that they could just as well attain their political interests through their dominant position in society. 

For conservative evangelicals to see themselves similarly vulnerable to violations of religious freedom, they have to miraculously forget the significant role they played in getting Trump into the Oval Office.

It further overlooks the fact that the only reason why American Muslims play an outsized role today in defining the boundaries of religious freedom is because they are not just proxies for the left, as Uddin argues, but rather one of the few minority communities in American politics today who can be targeted, pretty much with impunity, in order to advance white and Christian supremacist ideas and policies. This was demonstrated through the trail of events that led from presidential candidate Trump calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to the Supreme Court upholding a revised version of his symbolic “Muslim ban” in 2018. For conservative evangelicals to see themselves similarly vulnerable to violations of religious freedom, they have to miraculously forget the significant role they played in getting Trump into the Oval Office and religiously conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench.

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