President Obama's Lessons on Religious Freedom

Earlier this week, for the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama visited a mosque in the United States.

Obama's speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore should be cherished and applauded for its embrace of the freedom of religion. Some current presidential candidates, specifically from the Republican party, have spoken harmful words towards the Muslim community in America and across the globe. Sadly, this continues to perpetuate an unjust fear of the overwhelming majority of Muslims due the ugly and violent interpretation of Islam by groups like ISIS.

Obama, however, sought to set a corrective and peaceful tone towards Islam and the freedom of religion in general. First, by calling out years of suspicion that he is a Muslim, Obama is bringing Islamophobia to light. In the last eight years since Obama has been in the spotlight, many Americans, Christians included, have questioned whether or not Obama is a Muslim. Yet suspicion about Obama is really about Muslims in general. The tone behind the "Obama is a Muslim" rhetoric is a fearful one that purports that Muslims are somehow deceitful and dangerous to others. This is patently false, and Obama pointed that out in Baltimore. He specifically called out the good and faithful citizenry of Muslims in America by feeding the poor, caring for the ill, and supporting the needy. Specifically, Obama cited Muslims in Kenya protecting Christians from terrorists. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are peaceful and loving towards their neighbors.

Second, Obama, unlike some of the current Republican candidates for president, is serious about the freedom of religion. Obama said, "if we're serious about freedom of religion -- and I'm speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country -- we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up."

And so we should. Many Christian Americans, like myself, are quick to champion the freedom of religion. Yet for many, this seems to only apply to the freedom to practice Christianity. Muslims do not seem to be afforded the same equal treatment when they are consistently viewed suspiciously of being violent. This isn't just the "average American" take, either. Consider these words that threaten Muslims, and thereby the freedom of religion in America. Donald Trump said in the third-person in December 2015, "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." While other GOP candidates have not been so forceful with their language, the skeptical view of Muslims is rarely directly challenged.

Support of Trump's statement, or that of any person who wants to stymie religious persons from citizenship or worship, should be viewed as an affront to religious freedom. Trump ostensibly has evangelical support throughout the country. If Christians genuinely care about the freedom of religion, they should champion the right of Muslims to freely worship throughout America. Any assault on the freedom for Muslims to worship according to their tradition is an assault on the freedom of religion itself.

Third, Obama stressed the unity amongst people of faith in America. In times when theological disagreements lead to harmful rhetoric, the right to religious freedom binds us together. The freedom of religion is a declaration of equality. No person, religious or irreligious, ought to be treated differently due to their beliefs. Religion has been mutated into dogma that separates communities. Instead, our core values ought to bind us together. It's afforded to all of us equally. That equality makes us family. As Obama concluded, "We are one American family. We will rise and fall together. It won't always be easy. There will be times where our worst impulses are given voice. But I believe that ultimately, our best voices will win out. And that gives me confidence and faith in the future."

For a man whose personal beliefs have been called into question countless times, we all have something to learn from President Obama's faith and unequivocal endorsement of the freedom of religion.