Author of “Sacred Liberty” Says Greatest Threat To Religious Liberty In America Is Treatment of Muslims

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

Steve Waldman has had a long journalistic career that spans from U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek to the founding of the award winning multifaith website Beliefnet.com. Waldman is the author of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America and has just released his latest book Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom.

In our current political climate, the rhetoric and exercise religious liberty has become deeply divisive. Waldman’s book offers an important historical perspective of the way religious freedom has been articulated and experienced in the United States.  Sacred Liberty challenges the reader of all political stripes to re-examine their own perspectives in hopes of coming to greater understanding of the value of religious liberty and how it’s right application is important as we continue to build a nation with justice and liberty for all.

Your book Sacred Liberty complicates easy partisan delineations about religious liberty. What is one piece of information – a law, a person or moment in history – that is instructive for everyone who is committed to religious liberty?

One of the most consequential bouts of persecution happened in the 1760s and 1770s in Virginia. Anglican leaders were having Baptist preachers beaten and imprisoned for the crime of being a Baptist minister. Stunning violence. The Reverend John Waller was preaching in Caroline County hen an Anglican minister strode up to the pulpit and jammed the butt end of a horse whip into his mouth. Waller was dragged outside, where a local sheriff beat him bloody.1 He spent 113 days in jail. When the Reverend James Ireland was jailed in nearby Culpeper County, he continued to preach through his cell’s barred windows. To stop him, Anglican church leaders galloped horses through the crowd, and hecklers urinated in his face. The Reverend David Thomas’s services were disrupted by protesters who hurled live snakes and a hornet’s nest into the room.

There are a few things that are important about this. First, all this happened within a horse ride of James Madison’s home. The persecution of the Baptists — and their bravery — shaped Madison’s views on religious liberty. These folks were what we’d now call “Evangelical Christians.” Yet they ardently supported separation of church and state — not because they wanted a secular society but because they thought religious freedom would lead to religious vibrancy. Third, it’s a reminder that many people had to fight hard — sometimes sacrificing their reputations, freedom or even lives — to gain us all religious freedom. Let’s not squander it.

You say the greatest current threat to religious liberty is how the United States treats Muslims. Why is that so critical and how would you council our politicians and religious leaders of other faiths to address this threat?

It’s frightening how fast the consensus around religious liberty can unravel. A poll in 2015 said only half of Republicans were willing to say Islam should be legal in America. We’re seeing the re-appearance of messages and attacks that had existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries but which had (we thought) been vanquished. Communities trying to block the construction of mosques. A total conflation of the behavior of regular American Muslims and Muslim terrorists, resulting in the attempt to ban Muslim immigrants and set up a registry for American Muslims. The idea that Islam isn’t a real religion — it’s a “Political system” — and therefore not worthy of First Amendment protections. These are all things we saw happen to Mormons, Catholics and others. This all goes completely against our religious freedom model. To stop this, faith leaders need a strong all-for-one-one-for-all solidarity. Religious freedom that only applies to your faith is not religious freedom. If you don’t protect another faith’s freedom, you will surely eventually lose your own.

We have seen how Trump/Pence GOP will use religious freedom in 2020 – ‘Christians and religious conservatives are under attack, only I can save you.’ How would you suggest more progressive politicians should frame religious liberty in a way that can appeal to the very wide DNC constituency from religious to secular.

First, recognize that while religious Christian leaders are severely exaggerating the threat to their religious freedom, they have some legitimate concerns. It’s not crazy to think that aggressive secularism could give religion a second class status. For instance, at one point some financial aid could help someone become a psychologist but not a minister because that was thought to violate separation of church and state. So I would listen carefully. Find out the legitimate concerns — acknowledge the real cases of religious subordination. And then offer a challenge based in history and in the better angels of evangelicals: Evangelical Christians as a group did more to advance religious liberty in American history than any other group. We need their leadership again. And we should be willing to say: if you stop the attacks on Muslims and start to defend Muslim religious freedom, we will work with you to make sure that your religious rights are protected too.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President and Editor of Voices at Auburn. 

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