Andrew Fiala

Religion is our right – but don’t forget we have a national calling to so much more

A group of theologians recently published an open letter arguing that Christians should reject ethno-nationalism. The letter was signed by a number of prominent Christian thinkers including Cornel West, who will speak in Fresno on Tuesday.

The letter argues that nationalism is “politically dangerous” and un-Christian. It calls racial, ethnic, and religious nationalism a “theological error.” The letter says that xenophobia and racism are “grave sins against God the Creator.” It declares, “White supremacist ideology is the work of the anti-Christ.”

This strong message reflects a Christianity that is focused on love and liberation. But there are other kinds of Christianity. Christians engaged in the slave trade. They conquered indigenous peoples. They burned witches. And Christians have cozied up to fascists and authoritarians. On the one hand, you have Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. On the other hand, you have Torquemada and the Inquisition.

Religion is not one thing. Communities of faith disagree about piety and patriotism, as well as immigration, abortion, and other hot-button issues. People who attend the same church or temple also vote differently.

In a democracy, we have that right. That’s exactly why we need to reaffirm our commitment to secular values. Racism and xenophobia are not only un-Christian. They are also antithetical to the basic principles of the secular human rights tradition. These principles form the basis of the American Constitutional system and the evolving system of international law.

A crucial feature of secularism is religious liberty. Individuals have the right to believe or not believe whatever they want. And government should keep out of the religion business.

Unfortunately, politicians use religion as both a wedge or a cudgel. This week, for example, President Trump suggested that Jews who vote for Democrats are either ignorant or disloyal. The President re-tweeted a comment that said Jews in Israel love him like he was “the King of Israel” and the “second coming of God.”

Of course, Jewish Americans tend to support Democrats. And here is the important point: in a liberal democracy, everyone is free to vote for whomever they want. Our religious identities and beliefs should be irrelevant to our rights and responsibilities as citizens.

In the secular world, citizens are treated as individuals. Some individuals understand themselves in religious, ethnic or racial terms. That’s their right. But political leadership and the legal system ought to avoid reducing individuals to some racial or religious identity. We are each equal before the law and in the voting booth regardless of racial or religious identity.

Our tendency to focus on group identity is at the root of the problem of racism and xenophobia. This is morally wrong because it denies the unique individuality of persons. This reductivism also ignores the internal complexity of religious, racial and ethnic communities.

You don’t have to be a theologian to understand that racism and religious chauvinism are dangerous. These evils have led to a long and terrible list of historical atrocities. The violence continues today. And so, while I tend to agree with the spirit of those liberal theologians who hold that every person is created in the image of God, it might be better if we put that argument in non-religious terms.

Christians’ calls for brotherly love are inspiring. But we should also note that most religious traditions say something similar. And more importantly, racism and ethno-religious nationalism are violations of human rights. The American legal system demands that each individual be respected as a person with an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thus in addition to saying that white supremacy is anti-Christian, we should also say that it is un-American. There are still racist Americans and racist Christians. But they do not reflect what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

The theologians’ letter concludes, “A true culture of life welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and binds the wounds of all who are our neighbors.” We ought to add that a true American culture is one that celebrates our diversity, values the dignity of persons, and understands that we each have a right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala

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