Recent controversies surrounding the proposed building of mosques continue to pop up around the country—most noticeably in Murfreesboro, TN and New York City. In the press, in public hearings, we’ve seen the best and worst of our politicians and fellow citizens. As is often true when strong religious beliefs clash in the public sphere, tempers flare and civility seems in short supply. How should our elected officials, candidates for office, and citizens model debates about religion and politics in America and why? What impact does the current process have on future religious liberty issues in the US?
When I was six years old I told my father I was going to be the first female president of the United States of America. Fourteen years later, I’ve learned to be a little more realistic with my goals. Children all over this country dream of making a difference, dream of being the President or the Mayor or Governor of their state. These kids need role models, politicians who stand for something other than just getting elected. One of the great mottos of the U.S. is “E Pluribus Unum,” translated from the Latin to “Out of many, one.” It represents that as American’s we come from many different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures, but that we are all Americans. It is on the seal of the President, Vice President and the US Congress.
Religion is a sensitive issue, perhaps even the most sensitive issue being debated in national politics today. Unfortunately, not all our elected officials and candidates are providing good examples of how to handle situations with respect, honor, and courage. There are egregious examples—like Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey who publicly questioned the legitimacy of Islam as a religion —and there are less obvious examples, like Arizona Senator John McCain, who has stated publicly that the United States is both a Christian Nation and a nation not grounded in any one faith. Both of these issues make national headlines, and both of these candidates suffer for their inconsistencies and snap judgments—and yet nothing changes.
Civility, like patience, is a virtue. Civility, in politics especially, involves courtesy, consideration, and active listening. American politics is losing the ability to have a conversation, preferring instead the practice of yelling the same things back and forth, louder each time.
On my first day at the Interfaith Alliance, Jay handed me a document called “A Call to Quiet Conversations and Public Debates.” It is an issue discussion on Same-Gender Marriage written by our President Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy. Iits lasting effect on me has been its respect for the right to hold an opposing view. Rev. Gaddy has since sat down with Maggie Gallagher, President of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, at the Interfaith Alliance Arizona Forum to discuss the issue of Same-Gender Marriage. Though both clearly disagreed completely, the conversation was just that—a conversation: one asked a question, the other responded (and importantly, to that question). This should be the standard for religious discourse in America.
Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I believe in free speech, but I also believe that the right to free speech comes with the responsibility to think of the repercussions of a statement before saying it. Not every idea is a good idea, just as every statement is not a good statement. Does Ron Ramsey think that saying Islam is not a religion but a “militant political ideology” resonated with 2 and half million American citizens who also happen to be Muslim? Are his not the same arguments made against Quakers, Baptists and Catholics during the early founding years in the U.S.? Pitting one group against another may make good primary fodder but when you are elected to represent a city, district, a state, a country, what are your responsibilities for representing all your constituents? E Pluribus Unum- we are after all, Americans, made up of many different faiths, traditions, and cultures.
"FAQs: Coins." Treasury's Learning Vault. U.S. Department of the Treasury, n.d.
Web. 26 July 2010.