America’s best historical virtue might be its commitment to religious freedom. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”
For over two centuries, the “land of the free” has fostered spiritual growth by outlawing both the prohibition and the establishment of religion – theoretically. Practically, however, this heritage is marred. At home and abroad, the Left and Right have each tainted America’s record on the First Amendment.
President Barack Obama had a bad start on this issue. For example, most industrialized nations outrank U.S. federal foreign aid in percentage of GNP, according to globalissues.org. Yet Dr. Carol Adelman, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity, states that “in private giving,” the American people “are clearly the most generous on earth.” They provide far more international assistance than any government in the world. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama’s first budget last year increased the tax burden for many Americans who contribute to charities – even those who do so for reasons of faith.
The president also missed his first chance to promote religious freedom overseas. After Iran’s controversial election last summer, the White House merely scolded the despotic spiritual rulers who endorsed a bloody crackdown on the opposition. In so doing, Mr. Obama neglected a central demand of the First Amendment: protecting peaceful believers from oppression.
Other liberal policies have made many Americans fear an over-secularizing of the United States – or the state taking over the church. “Separation of church and state” is not actually in the Constitution. Moreover, it only works if it is applied fairly to all, including tolerating those with different views. Legal restraint of specific ideals or practices that offend certain people ends “the free exercise of religion.”
Many on the Right also misunderstand religious freedom. They only support conditional freedom for certain allies, especially in the Middle East. Of course no American is bound by the Constitution to anyone outside their border. Still, U.S. foreign policy should reflect its founding principles – including the First Amendment. Abraham Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”
Millions of Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries want greater Islamic influence in their nations’ laws, schools and society. In the same way, many Christians desire more Christian dissemination in their own nations. Ideally, each group ought to encourage equal freedom for the other.
Some Americans rightly condemn the oppression of Christians or women within certain Muslim areas, notably those under shari’a law. However, friendships also prevail across religious lines, and many female leaders pursue Islamic interests. All these issues deserve careful research and debate, yet the point is that Christians and Muslims who enact peaceful laws based on their faith should allow one another to do the same.
To summarize, people should not practice what they critique. Instead, they should enable others to do what they practice and preach. Middle East expert Dr. David Holt states, “Empathy and understanding do not necessarily equal agreement.” They do open the door for fundamental cooperation though.
Religious freedom is essential for American prestige and security. Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge said, “Unless we cling to [the things of the Spirit], all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.” Spoken in 1926, these words still ring true today. Freedom of worship begins at home with the end of judicial and legislative activism. Then, Americans should share their freedom with a world in need.