On July 4 we celebrate our Independence — “we” being descendants of those scrappy colonists who insisted on the right to worship as they pleased. However, in this day and age, we are more likely to extol the colonial revolt against the tea tax. But many of the early colonists were escapees from religious persecution in England. Various assertions of the King’s authority on these freedom-loving Brits led to our declaration of independence. Two things have changed since 1776: coffee has replaced tea as the drink of choice, and threats to religious liberty loom large in contemporary America.
On July 4, 2012, shortly after Iftikhar Ali, president of the Islamic Society of Joplin, Missouri and his family were lighting fireworks in celebration of our liberty, the Islamic Society’s mosque was set on fire. Security cameras may have captured the image of a white arsonist and the FBI is investigating. In 2008, the Mosque’s sign was torched. That crime was never solved.
While the Joplin Mosque was burning, Murfreesboro, Tennessee Muslims were forbidden by a court ruling from entering their mosque. They were enjoined from entering by a judge who ruled that a planning commission had not given proper public notice. Opponents at the hearing testified to their opposition to Islam, some fearing Muslims overtaking their fair city. But justice and freedom have prevailed. On July 19, 2012, after a two-year court battle between the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and the Justice Department, on the one hand, and Rutherford County, on the other, U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell reversed the earlier ruling preventing Murfreesboro’s 1,000 Muslims from entering the Mosque. The mosque’s Imam, Ossama Bahloul, praised the ruling, declaring that “the concept of liberty is a fact existing in this nation.”
It is possible that some of America’s Christians have encouraged or at least not opposed attitudes that condone restrictions on the freedom to practice Islam. If so, it needs to stop now. The first amendment protection of religious liberty applies equally to Muslims and Christian alike. Constitutional protection of religious liberty is both a right and a luxury — one not afforded to Christians in many countries. While I think religious liberty should be defended completely on its own merits and for every religion, Christians might think of defending freedom of religion for Muslims in order to send a message of liberty to the world (thereby encouraging religious freedom where their Christian brethren are persecuted). Christians should consider the virtues of complete religious liberty in countries where they are not in the majority.
American Christians can look to the earliest settlers for surprising defenses of liberty and tolerance. While the Puritans were not exactly the best models of religious toleration, Roger Williams, an early American Puritan, drew upon his Christian beliefs in support of liberty and tolerance. Williams (ca. 1604-1684), the American founder of the colony of Rhode Island, was a Protestant Christian. Growing up a persecuted religious minority in England, Williams was on the receiving end of religious intolerance. He lamented the blood shed during centuries of wars and persecution by those professing allegiance to Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace. In a plea for religious liberty, Williams defended liberty not only for his fellow Christians, but also for pagans, “anti-Christians,” Jews, and Turks (Muslims). Williams claimed that Christians should persuade only by God’s word, not by the human sword. Religious coercion at the tip of the sword was nothing more than a “ravishing of conscience.” It is morally and spiritually wrong, and of the highest order of wrong, to “molest any person” for their religious beliefs. Like all good Protestants (those who protested against the authority and hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church to mediate between God and humanity), he believed that each individual’s conscience must consider and decide religious matters on its own.
It’s time for Christians to regain their heritage, reaffirm their compassion, and fight mightily for freedom and justice for all. That means ceasing opposition to the building of Mosques and condemning attitudes that fuel the flames of Mosque-burnings.
You can show your support for the Joplin Muslims and for religious liberty here.