The life of a non-profit (like Interfaith Alliance) can be like a Venn diagram. We work in coalition with all sorts of groups to protect faith and freedom as understood by the First Amendment to the Constitution. And we work on behalf of all sorts of groups whose faith and freedom come under attack by those whose understanding of those constitutional guarantees are different (and, we would contend, wrong).
Much of the work we do at Interfaith Alliance can be put into two categories, the protection of religious communities, and the protection from religious communities. It is irrelevant to us if the belief system of any particular faith community is compatible with mine or with our staff or with our board. We are committed to protesting the denial of the full rights and privileges of citizenship to any American of faith or no faith, Evangelical Christians and Buddhists, Orthodox Jews and Unitarian Universalists, Roman Catholics and atheists, and Muslims. At the same time that we are protecting the rights of these and other faith communities to practice their religion without undue burden from the government, we are also protecting the rights of all Americans as some of these same faith communities seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.
This struggle can best be seen in the work we do day in and day out on behalf of Muslim Americans and LGBT Americans. Two groups that on the surface would seem to have diverging agendas in fact share a common threat in the misuse of religious freedom that attempts to marginalize both communities. Certainly, there are many in the Muslim community who stand with the LGBT community, and the same is true in the other direction. However, like most old faith traditions – my own Jewish faith included – Islam teaches tenets about human identity that do not reflect the contemporary beliefs that pervade civic society. And, like many American communities, the LGBT community is not without the tinges of anti-Islam sentiment.
Take first our Muslim friends. I think it is safe to say that no matter what the statistics might say about the prevalence of acts of discrimination against members of any other faith community, American Muslims live in as much or more fear of bigotry and physical violence than any other people of faith.
Much of Islam remains a mystery to many Americans of other convictions. Even the vocabulary of faith provokes suspicion and mistrust, not because of what the words mean to Muslims, but because of the meanings English-speakers bring to them. First among them is Islam, which means “submission.” It is a sacred posture of faith to a Muslim, but antithetical in its political meaning to proponents of American exceptionalism.
This brings us to the other part of the equation. The prevention of discrimination in the name of religion – most especially with the acquiescence and enforcement of government – is another of our primary commitments. And one of the communities that has had to work hard to access those rights in modern times has been lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer people. Aside from the fact that many straight Americans do not know the accurate meanings of those terms and some similar number consider the variance from their own definition of “normal” to be morally wrong, the purposeful misunderstanding of what freedom of conscience means has proved an organizing point for the Religious Right. Claiming their “religious right” to live in, effectively, a gay-free zone, they have used traditional teachings about sexuality in attempts to deny the civil rights of Americans. Those rights include marriage, commerce and association, among others. The Religious Right incorrectly claims that the extension of civil rights to LGBTQ individuals forces evangelicals to forfeit their right to free exercise of religion. No policy more violates the constitutional prohibition of government action to establish religion than declaring that the private beliefs of any citizen hold sway over the civil rights of another.
The struggles each community faces stem from religious freedom, but they are manifest in different ways. Muslims are most often questioned about their loyalty to the United States if they freely exercise their religious beliefs. Gays, lesbians and transgender persons are most often accused of violating well-established religious norms. Standing with Interfaith Alliance and other allies in protecting both faith and freedom is an indication of the very best of what the American experience is all about: the unalienable rights endowed to us all.
Because the challenges faced by each community share a common core, we are able to stand with our allies, each and both – even when there might be conflict. It is not incumbent on us to insert ourselves into the internal conversations of any faith community, though we stand at the ready to share our perspective if invited to do so. It is not our place to suggest a compromise of principle for the sake of rhetorical peace if the rights and privileges of citizenship are not under attack.
James Cardinal Hickey, the late Archbishop of Washington, was famous for saying, “We care for people not because they are Catholic, but because we are.” Cardinal Hickey might very well have disagreed with some of the positions we at Interfaith Alliance staked out, but on the Venn diagram of our activities, we would find common ground with the sentiment of his insight. We advocate for others not because they necessarily believe in our values, but because we do.