Defend Religious Liberty for All Despite Our Differences
As an author with a second book newly published, I attend quite a few public readings, panel discussions, and similar events. The setup (low stage, cordless microphone, stiff-backed chairs, glasses of water) rarely changes. But when it comes to the people, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Just last year, I was called a “Sharia supremacist” prior to participating in a panel. The slur was not surprising.
Many advocates of religious freedom do not recognize my religion’s legitimacy, or even its right to exist. One report found that, since 2015, Republican officials in 49 states have publicly attacked Islam, some even questioning its legitimacy as a religion. Political tribalism is not new, but its replacement of religious faith in some cases and unholy fusion with religious faith in others has led to a distinctly contemporary threat. But there are believers dedicated to a hopeful and principles-based religious liberty.
I recently attended the inaugural Religious Liberty Summit hosted by the Religious Liberty Initiative at Notre Dame Law School, where attendees' religious differences were obvious even to a casual observer. At this leading Catholic university, I watched a Jewish Rabbi praise a Mormon author. And as Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik spoke, I glanced up and saw an Elder from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Catholic cardinal, and a notable Protestant leader sitting side by side. I saw secular agnostics and devout believers — reporters, advocates, and pundits. For all the differences in that room, there was a comfortable warmness, academic and earnest. It was apparent that the leaders who had gathered there shared an understanding that religious freedom is about our individual dignity as human beings and the demands of conscience.
Sitting inside that Catholic university, I remembered "Dignitatis Humanae," Catholicism’s definitive 1965 document about religious liberty: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” The document also argues that free will — free search — is foundational: “The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.” Religious liberty as a whole is at risk when a society embraces the idea that some searches for truth are invalid because of where they lead.
I worked for years at a religious liberty law firm that was interested in this pursuit of conscience and openness to belief. Its founder was well known for arguing that religious liberty is not about who God is, but who we are. A pluralist society can respect the individual dignity of its members and their pursuit of conscience without demonizing their faiths. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly observed that a robust civil society is critical to the success of a democratic government and the well-being of its citizens. Religious freedom is the cornerstone of our civil society, and the ministries that faith-based nonprofits provide are vital to millions of Americans.
Religious freedom for everyone, including, I’d argue, especially for Muslims like me, is the only way we’ll get the principle right. Sometimes the best antidote to division is to be in the rooms where we find ourselves, fully present, engaging with those different from us as we all pursue the truth together.
Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer and scholar and she's the author of the new book, "The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America: Today's Threat to Religion and Religious Freedom."