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Religious freedom is a basic right

By the Rev. Sam Wood
September 10, 2010

A UMNS Commentary

A firestorm over the proposed building of a mosque two blocks away from ground zero (site of the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center towers) has reached a new fevered pitch. While I hesitate to weigh in and appear to be political, as an American Christian I must speak.

Let’s get our facts straight:

  1. While the proposed Islamic community center and mosque is two blocks away, it is not at or on any property that was originally part of the World Trade Center complex.
  2. Many sober-minded people are doubtful of the wisdom of such a venture and believe that its construction will ultimately hurt Islam in America.
  3. When President Obama spoke about the issue, he supported the developer’s constitutional right to build a house of worship “in accordance with local laws and statutes.”
  4. A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this month showed that 68 per cent of Americans opposed the building of the mosque.

Regardless of my personal sensibilities, as an American I have to agree with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a Jewish Independent) and President Obama (a Christian Democrat): The builders have a constitutional right to build.

Our country’s founders enshrined in the Constitution the idea of “religious freedom” for all. If hyper-conservatives seize the moment to write religious freedom out of the Constitution for Muslims, how long do you think it will before Christianity comes under attack from the radical left? How many times has the Constitution protected minorities? What wisdom is there in putting religious freedom, equal protection and civil liberties to a popular vote?

There was a time in America when the “majority” got it wrong on women’s suffrage, slavery and civil rights for African Americans. Sometimes the Constitution has had to be rewritten to allow the concept of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to spread its blanket to cover the deprived and oppressed. At other times, the Constitution has defended minorities against the retrenchment of those liberties from the popular majority.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a United Methodist would be vocal about religious freedom. Paragraph 164A of the denomination’s Social Principles includes freedom of religion in its list of “Basic Freedoms and Human Rights” which governments should protect.

In the 2008 Book of Resolutions, Resolution 3128 observes, “These persons (Muslim and other Arabs in America) are suffering the effects of a particularly virulent prejudice too often aided and abetted by statements and images in the media and by rhetoric from some of the highest political leadership.” Sound familiar? The same resolution challenges the members and leaders of The United Methodist Church “to oppose demagoguery, manipulation, and image making that seeks to label Arabs and Muslims in a negative way (and) to counter stereotypical and bigoted statements made against Muslims and Islam, Arabs and Arabic culture.”

Socially, one of the best arguments I have heard for supporting the constitutionality of the proposed mosque’s construction came from a conservative commentator when he said, “Muslims experience more freedom in America than they would in their home countries.” Does anyone not hope that the prosperity and freedom found in America (including civil rights) will have a “civilizing” effect on the radical elements in Islam? Or, do we justify the belief in too many corners of the Islamic world that America is at war not with radical terrorists, but with Islam itself?

I read polling numbers that say that about of one-third of Americans believe that President Obama is “secret” Muslim, including 57 percent of all Republicans. This seems somehow to justify the hatred directed at him, because any good American must also hate Muslims. This is the rankest of bigotry and is unworthy of Americans, especially Christian Americans.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.(Matthew 5:43-48, NIV)

Even if we err in thinking that all Muslims are our enemies, as Christians should we not follow our Savior’s direction?

For Jesus’ sake, let’s get this one right.

*Wood is pastor of Dawson United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kan. Experience as a chaplain in law enforcement, camp, care home and disaster-response settings have made him aware of the struggles of people of different faith traditions to gain acceptance, respect and care.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.