Saturday, November 10, 2012


There was a story circulating through camp that made it clear that we, “weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”  A lot of things had changed for us during those first weeks in Saudi Arabia.  But they were  the things a soldier might expect:  bad food…heat…less than ideal living accommodations…heat…loneliness…heat… dust…more heat.  But the rumor swirling around like desert sand reminded us that it wasn’t just climate that was different about this place.  The story being whispered from soldier to soldier, from mess hall to flight line, was that a poor Filipino “guest worker” in the nearby town had been executed.  Beheaded for the “crime”  of casually making the sign of the cross in public.
I was never able to substantiate the rumor and it may just have  been  nothing more than  an “urban legend” but I do remember the look of fear in the eyes of the local merchants when the Mutawa, (the religious police empowered to enforce Muslim piety) would swagger into the shops with their untrimmed beards and spotless white robes.  If these guardians of orthodoxy judged that a woman was not sufficiently submissive to men, or if a shop keeper failed to roll down his shutters the split second the muezzin’s call to prayer sounded from the minarets , then the impious offender would be beaten with the wooden staffs that the Mutawa always carried with them.  A woman caught walking alone (women are forbidden by law to drive) without an accompanying male would be beaten, verbally abused, and even arrested.  On at least one occasion a  Mutawa enforcer  made the mistake of trying to bully a female U.S. Airman only to find himself laid out in the dust with a broken nose and a very surprised expression on his face.
I’ve seen what “faith-based initiatives” can do in cultures that lack the corrective counter balance of civil rights and respect for religious pluralism.  One of the things that makes America such a success is the religious tolerance built into our Constitution by the Founding Fathers.  “Congress shall pass no law establishing or restricting the free exercise of religion.”  That wisdom not only protects us  FOR the practice of religion.  It also protects us FROM the practice of religion.  The religious wars of the 16th century had Christians tearing Europe apart about which version of Christianity the State should endorse.  The Founding Fathers were aware of that bloody history when they set out to protect the rights of individual conscience in the Constitution.  No Church, no denomination,  (not even if it’s adherents are in the majority) can ever force their orthodoxies on the rest of us.  While the foundational documents of the revolution make a brief nod to the  “Creator” as  the seat of individual rights, they NEVER quote the Bible, or even make the slightest  mention of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or any other religious figure.
But tolerance of differences, the bedrock of a pluralistic society, doesn’t come easily.  It forces us daily to confront our own prejudices and fears.  It requires a willingness to examine our  innate tribal impulses which, while they may contribute to our very identity, also at the same time separate us from each other.
It requires vigilance because the fires of fanaticism are always burning.   And the demagogues willing to stoke that fire are multiplying.  There are people in this country who would never  see themselves as kin to the Taliban, and would be mortified if you drew a comparison,  but at the same time  would love to see just one particular faith community, Christianity, enjoy exclusive prerogatives and dominance in this country.  They would like to see the United States of America become a “Christian” nation.  Ruled by “Biblical” law.  Of course it would be THEIR version of  “Christianity”.  THEIR interpretation of the Bible that would rule.  They want judges approved by pastors.  Presidents preaching at “Prayer Breakfasts”, and Mosaic Law enforced with prison, fines , and death.  There is a televangelist who reaches millions daily who regularly calls the Catholic Church “the Great Whore”.  There is another who calls for the rounding up and execution by starvation of all homosexual persons.  Another who has said that it isn’t greed or global warming that caused Hurricane Katrina, but rather a Mardi Gras parade which has “caused God to lift His protective shield fro the United States.” In shrill voices they demand that the Bible be substituted for the Bill Of Rights.
   Discerning just where the line is when it comes to “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” has never been easy in America.  But when we confuse the Sanctuary with the Town Hall we are in real danger of losing something precious in America.  Faith is a source of strength and hope.  It is personal and everyone has his or her idea of what it is.  It cannot be defined by someone else.  And because one person’s faith doesn’t look exactly like mine doesn’t mean they don’t have it.  When we start using our “faith” as a club and demand that the State coerce where we cannot convince then its  because our ideas have lost the power to persuade.

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