U.S. religious freedom is being eroded, advocates say
Misconceptions and ignorance are weakening the Constitution's 'first freedom.'
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With these awards and programs, "we are trying to raise the decibel level" of conversation about the "first freedom," says Robert Seiple, council president. Dr. Seiple formerly served as the US State Department's Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.
"People don't yet feel comfortable talking about religion," Seiple says, but "we need to talk about it more. Ninety-five percent of the problems in the world take place at the nexus of religion and politics."
Calling America's concept of religious freedom the country's best gift to the world, Seiple says it's incumbent on every generation of Americans to learn why it is essential and to recognize that it has to be nurtured in order to be sustained.
"We need to get to a more sophisticated level as a nation as to why this is so important," he adds.
Obstacle: privileging one faith
One obstacle is a growing tendency on the part of some people to feel that Christianity, the majority faith, should be privileged, and minority faiths only tolerated, if that. This belief is a product of the popular notion that the United States Constitution established a Christian nation. It did not. It created a secular republic committed to freedom of religion and conscience for all.
Both Seiple and Haynes express concern over the continued lack of knowledge in the US about Islam. "To think [Islam] is a monolithic faith is as silly as thinking that all Baptists think alike – it's crazy," he says.
With a syndicated column that appears bimonthly in newspapers across the US, Haynes receives "hundreds of e-mails" each time he writes about Islam; they have led him to conclude that "Islamophobia is a big and growing problem in America. Some people want to recast the 'war on terrorism' as a 'war on Islam,' " he says. This is dangerous not only for Muslims but for the country as a whole, he adds.
More encouraging, however, is the progress that's been made on religious issues in US public schools. While fights continue over such questions as the teaching of evolution and creationism, great strides have been made in ensuring students' constitutional rights to religious expression as well as in bringing religion appropriately into the curriculum.
Back in the mid-1980s, when religion was virtually ignored in public school textbooks, as though it played no role in history or society, Haynes left his college teaching career to pioneer a new field.
With support from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, he and Oliver Thomas of the Baptist Joint Committee brought together representatives from the country's principal religious and education groups to seek agreement on what a proper curriculum on religion would look like. A year and a half of discussion among groups that had been fighting for many decades resulted in a national breakthrough: "Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers," published in 1988.