Thursday, August 09, 2007

The freedom to oppress

-- by Dave

Ever notice how, for some Christian fundamentalists, the freedom of religion means the freedom not only to discriminate against other religions or other beliefs, but to actively promote hatred of them, to advocate their exclusion and oppression?

Take Republican Rep. Bill Sali of Idaho for instance. He thinks Muslims should not have been allowed to say a prayer in the hallowed halls of Congress, nor should they even have representation there:
A conservative Idaho lawmaker believes America's founding fathers would not have wanted a Muslim elected to Congress or a Hindu prayer delivered in the U.S. Senate.

Last month, the U.S. Senate was opened for the first time ever with a Hindu prayer. Although the event generated little outrage on Capitol Hill, Representative Bill Sali (R-Idaho) is one member of Congress who believes the prayer should have never been allowed.

"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes -- and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers," asserts Sali.

Sali says America was built on Christian principles that were derived from scripture. He also says the only way the United States has been allowed to exist in a world that is so hostile to Christian principles is through "the protective hand of God."

"You know, the Lord can cause the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike," says the Idaho Republican.

According to Congressman Sali, the only way the U.S. can continue to survive is under that protective hand of God. He states when a Hindu prayer is offered, "that's a different god" and that it "creates problems for the longevity of this country."

Randy Stapilus at Ridenbaugh Press (who, for Western politicos, should be on everyone's must-read list) got ahold of Sali's press spokesman for clarification:
When we asked Wayne Hoffman, Sali’s press spokesman, about the context of the comments (and whether they were accurate), he at first couldn’t recall the comments, then quickly corrected himself: "Ah, I get it now . . . Congressman Sali was invited to be on American Family News, a nationally syndicated talk show. This would have been last week, and the comments were made during that show. . . . I would hasten to add that several bloggers have gone into a weird place with regard to this comment, adding bizarre analysis onto this. I'd take it for what it says, nothing more."

Well, taking it for what it says, and nothing more, it's clear that Sali is saying that Muslims have no place in Congress, and that that they should not enjoy the same freedom of religious belief as everyone else, reflected by saying a Muslim prayer in the Senate.

But Hoffman chimes in at Stapilus' site:
UPDATE: A comment from Hoffman on the preceding post: “Randy, I feel the need to clarify the post you have on your website. Congressman Sali was merely expressing a personal opinion, based on his strong belief in the need to reach out for God’s guidance at the start of each day. That’s all. He bears no ill will toward Hindus, and he has no issue with working with Representative Ellison, nor with the fact that people of his district elected him. If you have questions, please ask.”

OK, I have a question: Wayne, can you not read what Sali said? OK, roll the tape again:
"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes -- and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers."

Well, perhaps they were, perhaps they were not. As far as anyone can discern, they were silent on the subject of Muslim American citizens. Some of them were in fact unrepentant racists, so seeking their advice may not be all that useful anyway.

But what we do know about them is that they believed in the freedom of religion. It's one of America's true founding values. See, e.g., the First Amendment.

If you talk to most Christians, actually, they get this. They understand that the freedom of religion -- the absolute freedom to find and practice any belief system you like, whether it's Abyssynian fire worship or atheism -- is what keeps us all together as Americans. It's our national glue. That's because it prevents any one belief system from imposing its values on any of the others. It implies an automatic respect for others' private religious beliefs.

This is true of a number of fairly conservative belief systems, including Mormonism (see the onrunning battle within the Republican religious right over Mitt Romney's candidacy), Catholicism (which has a long history of facing outrageous discrimination and demonization in America, e.g., the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s), and, for that matter, Islam, which behaviorally speaking is generally quite conservative, especially by Western standards.

People who come from these faiths instinctively understand that what enables them to practice their faiths as they wish is the freedom of religion. And Keith Ellison's presence in the House, and the saying of a Hindu prayer in the Senate, are crystalline examples of that freedom in action.

No one can say whether the Founding Fathers could have envisioned a day when international trade and communication were daily commonplaces in American lives; when immigrants would come to our shores from around the globe, bringing with them not just industry and creativity but also their various religious beliefs; when Muslims would become Americans and Americans Muslims. But that day certainly has come to pass. And in a competitive global economy fueled by the high technology we produce, we are the better for it.

Moreover, it's important to understand that Sali's words amount to hatemongering: He is arguing that Muslims do not belong in American society. This kind of exclusionism is not just profoundly antidemocratic, it's incredibly counterproductive in the 21st century.

Nor can Sali say legitimately that Muslims do not deserve representation on the floor of Congress. By definition in our democracy, Muslims have earned representation in the House by electing one of their own there.

Sali also clearly suggests that allowing Muslims to say prayers in Congress would at best alienate what he thinks is the Christian God, and at worst perhaps bring down His wrath on them. If that isn't an argument for excluding them, I don't know what it is.

It will be interesting to see what Sali himself has to say about this in the days to come. Can we expect a non-apology apology, a defiant insistence that he's right, or perhaps even a kabuki correction? Who knows?

Certainly, what his press spokesman has fed us so far flatly contradicts the meaning of Sali's salvo, which looks like the opening moves in a kabuki dance. The rest of us, meanwhile, can read the script quite clearly.

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