Religious Tolerance: Does It Work?

By Begley, Alex | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Religious Tolerance: Does It Work?


Begley, Alex, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


On March 1, Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs assembled the leading representatives of four major religious groups for a marathon of panels discussing the state of religion in America and how the U.S. system should-or shouldn't-be applied in newly formed democracies. "Religion in American Politics and Society: A Model for Other Countries?" was the last installment in the university's 4-year-long, 12-part series on religion and foreign policy. According to opening comments, around 70 percent of the world's population lives in places where there is a crackdown on religious freedom. Many of these places are familiar, and vital to international security-places like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. It was agreed that the United States had incorporated religious tolerance in a way few other countries had-but the topic of debate today was whether this system would work elsewhere.

The first panel was on the Jewish experience. Catholic University law professor Marshall J. Breger opened the discussion by focusing on how the Jewish community in America has embraced the idea of separation of church and state. After World War II, many in the Jewish community preferred the lack of connection between religion and the state because it meant freedom for Jews. "Jews are afraid of religion in the political world," Breger said, "because if it's going to be a religion, it probably won't be their religion."

Randi L. Rashkover, an associate professor in the religious studies department at George Mason University, politely disagreed with some of Breger's more philosophical points before launching into her own scholarly speech. She waxed philosophical about the assumptions made when we talk about religion and politics. Rashkover noted, most people assume that the two ideas can't be discussed together with reason and logic. "Religion," she said, "can't be integrated with the machine-ism of the state."

Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the rabbi who delivered the invocation at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, tackled the hot-button topic of whether or not religious groups should speak out on public policy-a theme that would be repeated time and again during the Christian panel. He argued that religious groups absolutely can and should speak out on public policy, but that "no one has a right to impose their belief on others through government." He commended Catholic leaders who used their moral code to form policy, instead of imposing the religious dogma that the group is known to practice. Jews, he said, did the same thing. Religious morals that aren't specific to one religion-including the equality of all people, the capability to move upwards in society, and the freedom of choice-are universal values that he believes have a place in policy.

Saperstein encouraged newly democratic countries to include religious freedom in their progress, giving people the right to worship as they please and to not have their rights compromised by their chosen religion. On the other hand, Saperstein warned, governments shouldn't go too far and become controlled by religion. "Total separation of church and state isn't necessary to freedom of religion, but it helps," he said.

The second hour marked the start of the Muslim response, which featured the biggest seat-filler yet: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, better known to the general public as the man behind the "Ground Zero Mosque." "The Muslim Experience" panel was marked with a sense of sadness at American's view of Islam but also hope for improvement.

Panelists Ed Husain and Asma Uddin represented the younger generation of Muslims finding their voice in these exciting times. Husain spoke first, pressing the importance of government support for Muslim organizations and embracing moderates in the struggle for religious understanding. …

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