Saturday, July 9, 2016

Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The recent unjustified killing of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of five white police officers in Dallas, along with ISIS inspired massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando and ISIS attacks overseas during Ramadan, remind us that our most daunting challenge today is to defend against racial and religious terrorism while countering the polarizing issues of race and religion with human rights and a politics of reconciliation.

            Thomas Jefferson provides us with a useful precedent on how human rights can address religious oppression, but in his 18th century world issues of race and civil rights were subsumed by the institution of slavery.  A terrible war would be fought before issues of racial justice superseded those of slavery; but even in the 18th century religious freedom was a major issue.

            Thomas Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence with its unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  As a slaveholder Jefferson was a hypocrite on issues of race and freedom, but he was a tireless advocate of religious freedom.  He considered his greatest accomplishment to be passage of the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and he helped make the freedoms of religion and speech first among our civil rights in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Those fundamental freedoms have since become human rights under international law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

            As a deist, Jefferson was not religious, but he understood the power of religion in a democracy where most people are religious.  Jefferson was not a Christian and was an outspoken critic of the institutional church, but he considered the teachings of Jesus as “...the sublimest morality that has ever been taught.”  Jefferson applied the moral teachings of Jesus to his politics, but advocated that the mystical matters of religion be left to the realm of privacy.  George Washington affirmed that “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of society.”  

            Jefferson had his own copy of the Qur’an and affirmed the right of Muslims to have the freedoms of religion and speech.  Later, as President of the U.S. Jefferson engaged and defeated the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean with U.S. Marines “…on the shores of Tripoli.”  They were 19th century predecessors of today’s Islamist terrorists.

            Since Jefferson’s day technological advances and globalization have dramatically changed the world, but not the propensity of human nature to hate and harm those of other races and religions.  Issues of race, religion and morality are more significant in U.S. domestic and foreign policy today—and just as contentious and corrosive—as in Jefferson’s day.  That’s because the expanded role of the U.S. overseas and the multifaceted forces of globalization have increased racial and religious diversity and its accompanied violence.

            Domestic issues involving race and religion can be addressed in the U.S. with a politics of reconciliation that provides legal and moral remedies, but overseas it is a different matter.  Islamic cultures do not accept the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech guaranteed by the ICCPR.  The Enlightenment that introduced libertarian democracy and human rights to the West had little effect in Islamic cultures, where Islamic law (shar’ia) remains dominant and stifles libertarian political values.

            Political leaders in the U.S. seem obsessed with combatting radical Islamist terrorism with military force, but Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam that is best countered by moderate Muslims who can challenge its legitimacy.  Muslims are now engaged in a battle of legitimacy between the harsh shari’a of Islamism and one compatible with political liberty.  Those Muslims who share our love for freedom are our allies in that battle; but we undermine their efforts with deployments of U.S. troops that radicalize young Muslims in Islamic cultures.

            Since the Arab Spring of 2011 concepts of legitimacy have begun to change in Islamic cultures, if by fits and starts; but President Obama has supported authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have used oppressive religious laws to silence their opposition.  Unless the U.S. reverses its strategic priorities it is likely to suffer defeat in the long term, since its policies alienate a growing number of young Muslims who are willing to fight and die for ISIS.

            For Islam to be a religion of peace and justice, shari’a must be considered a code of voluntary moral standards rather than a code of coercive laws.  Until that happens there can be no meaningful political freedom in Islam, and radical Islamist terrorism will continue to thrive.  An initial sign of progress will be the elimination of apostasy and blasphemy laws.

           The interwoven issues of religion, race and political freedom require a politics of reconciliation.  For religious issues, we can look back to the future to better understand how the freedoms of religion and speech, coupled with the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims can counter radical Islamist terrorism.  Freedom is the best antidote for both religious and racial oppression.

Notes and related blogs:

Acrimonious politics existed among the Founding Fathers, but they seemed to take seriously “mutually pledging their lives” to the cause of libertarian democracy, something lacking today.  See

Previous blogs on related topics are at Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 20116; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?, October 25, 2015; The Four Freedoms, Faith and Human Rights, January 9, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics, February 7, 2016; We Are Known by the Friends We Keep, February 14, 2016; Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy, April 16, 2016; The Relevance of Religion to Politics, April 30, 2016; and Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 21, 2016.

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