I grew up playing in the yard of my church in Lexington, Kentucky. From Vacation Bible School to youth group water wars and church picnics (complete with the requisite KFC buckets), my house of worship was a safe place for my friends and me. I know that my own sense of safety in my churchyard was part of my experience of privilege- both racial and religious- in our nation. As I've traveled the country over the last couple of years for work, I've seen firsthand that there are many places in America, where this sense of safety in a religious space is absent. Muslim children, on multiple occasions, have had to walk past armed men on their way to school and prayer in Texas, being told to "go back home" when the suburbs of Dallas are the only home they've ever known. Muslim kids in my own home state of Kentucky, as well as in Rhode Island and many other places have seen their places of worship desecrated with hateful graffiti. And just in the past week and a half, we've witnessed horrific murders of two Muslim leaders in Queens, NY, and of an Arab Christian in Tulsa, the latter by a neighbor who had repeatedly expressed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The image of Khizr Khan pulling out his pocket US Constitution at the Democratic National Convention has in many ways become an icon of this election season, as it should. The Khans have brought to national attention the question of whether our nation's commitment to religious freedom for all really means all. This is not just about a presidential candidate's careless and harmful rhetoric. The stories above about unsafe religious spaces happened before the campaigns were full-steam. This challenge to religious freedom is not new; though, to be sure, political rhetoric has intensified these experiences and made them more visible to the public eye.
The political fear-mongering, and the violence and hate seen at community levels, is not only happening at the expense of American Muslim individuals and families, but also at the expense of our own national ideals. Before the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a coalition of 32 American religious denominations and faith-based organizations, delivered copies of the Religious Freedom Pledge to every Congressional office. This Pledge was endorsed by more than 100 faith leaders at Washington National Cathedral in the fall of 2015, and calls for elected officials to uphold and defend individual religious liberty by speaking out against bigotry, discrimination, harassment, and violence based on religion or belief. These are values that people across the political spectrum should be able to unite behind; after all, they are ideals upon which our nation was founded.
Certainly, history shows that we have not always upheld these founding values, but the promise of America lies in the progress we have made- however slow and imperfect- and in what we know we can overcome together. Ideals do not uphold themselves. We must confront narratives of fear, hate, and division by showing in words and action that we are in this nation together and must look out for one another in our journey toward creating a more perfect union. We hope all Americans will join with us in rejecting efforts to scapegoat American Muslims, or Americans of any faith, ethnicity, race, or identity. The recent murder of Khalid Jabara- a Lebanese-American Christian- in Tulsa, OK, is a sobering reminder that anti-Muslim bigotry does not only affect the Muslim community. It opens the door for hate and violence targeting people of many different backgrounds, including Sikhs and Arab Christians, and it further enables bigotry and discrimination against racial and religious communities more broadly.
As we move toward the presidential election, we can expect more politicized responses to the turmoil and tragedies in our world. Reactions that target and isolate people based on their religious identity or racial or ethnic background do not make us safer or stronger. Whatever any of us believes about how to best advance equality, liberty, and security for all people, we must all be on guard against the narratives that seek to divide us against one another.
We know that a nation divided against itself, caught in a zero-sum game of rights and values, will move us backward, not forward. The United States of America was founded upon the ideal of religious freedom for all; it is this value upon which all of us rely, whether or not we identify with a faith tradition. If we allow discrimination against a particular religious group to take root, we are opening the door for all religious communities to become the next targets. We must work collectively to uphold the equal rights for all religious communities in this country, if we are to protect the freedoms sacred to us all.