This morning I met with 15 mostly Muslim scholars from Middle Eastern and African nations. The U.S. Department of State often brings these visitors to America to see the nation up close and promote understanding. If the guests express an interest in learning about the relationship between religion and state, Americans United is added to the agenda.
Many of the visitors who came today work in colleges and secondary schools, so they had a special interest in education. They seemed surprised when I told them that 90 percent of American youngsters attend public schools where there is no formal religious worship but where academic instruction about religion is permitted.
Naturally they were interested in learning about the state of Islam in America. I’m far from an expert in that area, but I was able to assure them that under the separation of church and state, government must treat all religions equally. One of the attendees had heard about the efforts in some American cities to block the construction of mosques. He wondered how that could happen in a country with religious freedom. I told him I’m hopeful that our courts will do the right thing and ensure that Muslims have the same right to construct centers of worship as any other faith.
One of the more interesting questions came from a scholar from Egypt. “What do you do,” he asked, “about those people who do not want this separation?”
I could give an entire speech about that – in fact, I have on many occasions. This morning I simply pointed out that in America, most of the opponents of church-state separation are members of ultra-conservative Christian groups who believe that their religion is the “true” one, and thus, it makes perfect sense to them that the government should align with it.
The flaw in that thinking, I explained, is that someone else embraces a very different theology and fervently believes the same thing. We simply must continue to work to persuade Americans of the value of church-state separation and defend that principle in the courts, in Congress and in state governments.
Another visitor wanted to know if we believe all nations should adopt the separation model. I had to tread carefully here, because several of the visitors represented nations that don’t recognize a division between religion and state. I said our belief is that, at a minimum, all governments must recognize that religious freedom is a fundamental human right.
Even those nations that have a government-established faith must, I said, extend the right of conscience to members of minority groups and refrain from oppressing them. (Of course, I do want to see all nations adopt separation, but a long journey starts with a single step.)
As we were wrapping up, one man approached me and in halting English said, “Your work is important. One of the problems of the world is that in religion there is too much force. There should be no force.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.