Although the US is home to the greatest experiment in religious freedom ever, and the great majority of Americans support that principle, surprising gaps in knowledge and understanding remain when it comes to practicing that freedom. And support for it seems to rise and fall.
Only a slim majority (56 percent) of Americans said in a 2007 survey that freedom of worship should extend to people of all religious groups, no matter what their beliefs (down 16 points, from 72 percent in 2000).
“A great many Americans don’t define religious liberty as a universal right for everyone,” says Charles Haynes, one of the honorees. He is senior scholar at Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, which conducted the survey.
At the same time, others see a weakening in federal courts in recent years of the First Amendment provisions relating to religion, a development that could endanger the rights of minority faiths. . .
One obstacle is a growing tendency on the part of some people to feel that Christianity, the majority faith, should be privileged, and minority faiths only tolerated, if that. This belief is a product of the popular notion that the United States Constitution established a Christian nation. It did not. It created a secular republic committed to freedom of religion and conscience for all.
Both Seiple and Haynes express concern over the continued lack of knowledge in the US about Islam. “To think [Islam] is a monolithic faith is as silly as thinking that all Baptists think alike – it’s crazy,” he says.
With a syndicated column that appears bimonthly in newspapers across the US, Haynes receives “hundreds of e-mails” each time he writes about Islam; they have led him to conclude that “Islamophobia is a big and growing problem in America. Some people want to recast the ‘war on terrorism’ as a ‘war on Islam,'” he says. This is dangerous not only for Muslims but for the country as a whole, he adds.
More encouraging, however, is the progress that’s been made on religious issues in US public schools. While fights continue over such questions as the teaching of evolution and creationism, great strides have been made in ensuring students’ constitutional rights to religious expression as well as in bringing religion appropriately into the curriculum. (MORE)