This fall we saw a disturbing rise in religious intolerance in the U.S. From the much-politicized opposition to a proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York City to a fundamentalist pastor's threat to burn Qurans, a wave of Islamophobia appears to be sweeping the country.
How should we as Christians respond? There are some key questions that get to the heart of the issue, and our answers say a lot about ourselves, our own faith, and the collective character of our country.
The first question is this: Does our judgment of our neighbors come from their religious labels or the content of their character? I do not advocate a religious pluralism that blurs the significant differences between religions, but I do believe that my religious tradition calls me to be a peacemaker and to love my neighbors, especially when I do not agree with them. When Muslim leaders step up to lead an initiative to reduce tensions and promote understanding, do we judge them by the actions of terrorists (whom those leaders have condemned) or by their integrity and character? This does not mean we have to agree with them on everything, but rather that we're called to love and respect them.
The second question asks: Do we believe in freedom for my religion or freedom of religion? The "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment were revolutionary statements. They represent ideals to which we aspire but have not always lived up to. Anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-Semitism, and other forms of religious bigotry have reared their ugly heads over and over in our history. But ultimately, many minority groups have flourished here because of our strong history of religious liberty. Whether we allow religious freedom for Americans of Islamic faith -- near Ground Zero or anywhere else -- will give evidence of our own character, the integrity of our faith, and our real commitment to the ideals that have distinguished our nation.