Americans’ ignorance on the need for religious freedom is more than just evidence of a failure to properly educate the population. It can prevent the nation from winning the war against terrorism.
That war, by the way, is as much a war of ideas as it is of bombs and surprise attacks against innocent people. To quote the late Adda Bozeman, an expert on the interrelation of statecraft and culture said, our ideas “must be in good fighting shape.”
Or, to quote Jennifer A. Marshall of The Heritage Foundation, “This war of ideas calls for stronger substance than Coca-Cola and Britney Spears.”
It calls for a clear articulation of America’s founding ideals, and an ability to explain to the world how those ideals can lead to peace and freedom.
Unfortunately, many Americans are flabby and ill prepared for the battle. They know far more about Coca-Cola and Star Wars than they do about the core liberties that allow them to enjoy life.
An opinion poll published Wednesday by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public
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Affairs found that 82 percent of 1,042 randomly sampled Americans contacted said it is important to protect religious liberty for Christians, but only 61 percent said the same about Muslims.
And while it you might argue the results were skewed somewhat because the question was asked within days of the attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif., it is sobering to note that the poll found roughly 70 percent in favor of protections for Jews and, of interest to readers of this publication, 67 percent would extend protections to Mormons.
Political affiliation had little effect on the results. Republicans were only slightly more in favor of protections for Christians over Muslims than were Democrats.
It may be some solace that a solid majority of those polled seem to appreciate the value of protecting the rights of all people to worship and practice their religion as they choose, but an ignorant minority can cause a lot of trouble.
And it doesn’t help when political candidate Donald Trump talks about banning Muslims from entering the country.
In recent weeks, at least anecdotal evidence shows that attacks against Muslims in America have increased. A Washington Post report found that American Sikhs have been targets of a lot of it.
The Sikh Coalition said one of its houses of worship in Southern California was vandalized and spray painted with hateful graffiti after the San Bernardino attacks. Some of the graffiti mentioned ISIS.
Sikhs are not Muslims. Their peaceful religion originated in South Asia in the 15th century, and their followers are citizens who fight in the American military, pay taxes and participate in ways similar to anyone else. Their men, however, wear turbans and sport long beards, making them an easy target for ignorant zealots masquerading as patriots.
In an essay she wrote for the Heritage Foundation several years ago, Jennifer Marshall noted how, “The American model of religious liberty and its thriving religious culture are significant defining attributes of the United States …” but that many people have come to view the “constructive tension between religion and state” as a “radical separation,” which is more of an idea of the French revolution than the American one.
This idea exists also within the government, which can hamper the way we deal with other nations. “If policymakers are unfamiliar with a religious framework for interpreting human action and motivation, they will be ill-equipped to communicate effectively with highly religious audiences,” she wrote.
In this war, pop culture is a poor weapon against religious ideologies that, although misguided, are powerful motivators for terrorists.
Marshall recommended Washington integrate religious freedom more into its overall promotion of freedom abroad. That would mean giving the nation’s ambassador at-large for religious freedom a role that goes beyond simply cataloging religious intolerance in other nations.
But it won’t happen so long as Americans remain ignorant of the reasons why all religions should be protected. It won’t happen unless they understand why Pope Francis said this freedom goes beyond merely being able to worship, to “speak and act in accordance with what their conscience determines.”
That defining American trait won’t capture all hearts and minds, but we can’t win unless we, and the rest of the world, really understand what is at stake.