“When good people sit by and do nothing.” We have heard it said. “Surely this ridiculous story about President Obama being a Muslim will blow over,” we say. But I'm not so convinced it will go away at the end of the news cycle.
We have seen the figures from the recent Time Magazine article and other news sources as well. A growing number of people in this country believe our president is not a Christian, but that he is a Muslim, or that they don't know. The growth in the latter number is as troubling as any, for it shows that people are neglecting to know, or that they are allowing themselves to be beguiled by those news sources which continue to plant the seed of doubt, innuendo, and blatant lies. And we do nothing. We say nothing. We let that belief that the president is the “other,” the “enemy of America” grow unchallenged.
Why should the religious beliefs of the president of the United States matter? On the one hand, we strongly hold that religious affiliation should not be a test for the presidency. We worked that through long and hard with the candidacy and election of John F. Kennedy. When Roman Catholics have been candidates for high office in subsequent elections it's barely mentioned. The country can learn. But when racial hatred and fear are at the bottom of the whispers, a people may refuse to learn.
And that, of course, is where the issue of the fabrication of Obama being a Muslim, or having the “seed” of Islam in him, connects with the issue of the building of the Mosque and community center in lower Manhattan. Much of the TV talk has been whether President Obama's twin statements two weeks ago, one restating the first amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” and, two, that he, as president was not going to express a view of a local municipality issue, would hurt him politically. I'm much more concerned whether the furor will hurt him physically or even mortally.
The resurgence of distrust of Islam, and fear, and outright rage, including the manufactured stories of “terror babies” being born in the U.S., that they could return later to bomb us (a convenient tie in with the unsettled immigration issues), is more like the “Red Scare” of the 1950's when fear of communism stood in the way of global cooperation and peace and tore this country apart. Immediately after 9/11there was a moment of good will toward America, and compassion for suffering here. We squandered that. And we forgot to remember that Muslims died on 9/11. And for a while, a few months, even a couple of years, there was a time of learning. People in churches and synagogues reached out, inviting Muslim neighbors to talk at adult forums. We were beginning, finally, to be a learning community.
Where has that gone? It is more than forgetting to continue to learn. We are now in a full fledged time of the fostering of fear. And we do nothing.
This week, “Live from Lincoln Center” presented a rare new production of “South Pacific” with all of that wonderful music. The young stage director said he had never seen the show before. The script, written shortly after World War II, is about more than “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I'm Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair”...but about fear of the other in human relationships. The words to “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught”.....racial hatred....were controversial when the show opened 60 years ago. And here they were being sung in Manhattan this week.
Across the country people gather to say, “We'd rather not have 'them' in 'our' neighborhood.” And we do nothing to attend such community meetings? To write letters to the editor? To talk about these issues in our own adult forums? To, yes, once again, set a safe learning environment for people of many faiths to gather and teach and learn from one another?
Troops return from Iraq and need to be warmly welcomed and supported, yes, supported, really supported as they re-enter their home environment. And we also need to talk, not only with them, but to talk to one another about what some people—not the ones who fought—mean when they say, “We won and we saved our freedom”? What, literally, “in the world” does that phrase mean? What, literally, in the world, are we doing?
“Congress shall make no law..” The establishment clause and the free exercise clause are two sides of our freedom of religion. For me to have this religious liberty means that my neighbor does too. “No one is free when others are oppressed,” reads the sign on my office door at the seminary. Is not this the goal? The Mayor and NY and the governor of Virginia recently made very clear that we cannot start drawing exceptions block by block to this wonderful heritage of the right to practice religion in a pluralistic nation. We are called to share this by consistently showing what religious liberty for all means. This is a way to become peacemakers in the world. That's how we deal with terror, and fear, externally and internally. Are we to do nothing, or are we called to be actively engaged as individuals and communities of faith in setting trustworthy environments for us to be different together?
Which brings us back to the president's religion. Yes, he is a Christian. And, yes, he is an African-American. We, you and I, “do nothing” when we become merely spectators and political pundits ourselves to who Barack Obama is. WE need to call for and create and engage in conversations about racism in this country. (Yes, this is the fifth anniversary of Katrina when this nation left tens of thousands of poor people and people of color without aid. What, if anything has changed since then?)
We can challenge individuals who make illogical and mistaken statements. When we recently did that, respectfully, the woman with whom my husband and I spoke was actually more ready than we might have thought to have the untruths about the president's place of birth that she had heard on talk radio corrected. WE need to create teaching and learning interfaith opportunities, where each of us can respectfully listen to what the “other” believes and put into words what we believe. We need to ask each other questions and grow. Such sharing of faith can be hard, but perhaps very interesting and not nearly as hard or as dangerous as what people are doing in public right now. (As I write this on August 26, the morning news reports a Muslim cab driver being stabbed in NYC.)
We are not “good people.” And, left to our own propensities to fear and hate, we never will be. But, by God's grace, mercy and unconditional love, we have been and are being and can be transformed into people of understanding and love in order to learn and to create new ways for us to be communities of caring action.