NORMAN — There was a story circulating through camp that made it clear we “weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”
A lot of things had changed for us since arriving in Saudi Arabia during Operation Southern Watch. But the rumor swirling about like desert sand, whispered from soldier to soldier, from mess hall to flight line reminded us that it was more than just the heat that was different here. A Filipino “guest worker” had been beheaded for the “crime” of making the sign of the cross in public. I was never able to substantiate the rumor which may have been just an urban legend but I do remember the fear in the eyes of the local shopkeepers whenever the Mutawa (the enforcers of religious piety) would swagger in with their untrimmed beards, staffs and spotless robes. If these guardians of orthodoxy caught a woman without a male escort, or if a merchant was tardy about shuttering their shop the moment the Muezzin’s call sounded from the minaret, they would beat or even arrest the impious offender. On at least one occasion a Mutawa enforcer made the mistake of bullying a female U.S Airman only to find himself laid out in the dust with a broken nose and an astonished expression on his face.
I’ve seen the dark side of “faith-based” initiatives in societies that lack respect for religious plurality. One of America’s great strength’s is the religious tolerance built into the Constitution. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers protects us not only for the practice of religion, but also from the practice of religion. No church, no denomination (not even if its adherents are the majority) can ever force their orthodoxies on the rest of us. While the foundational documents of our Republic (the Declaration and Constitution) make a brief nod to the “creator” as the source of our rights, they never name that Creator. Nor do they make the slightest mention of the Bible.
The creative energy of a pluralistic society doesn’t come easily. We are forced to confront our own fear, and required to examine the innate tribal impulses which give us not only our identity but also our prejudice. It requires vigilance because the fires of fanaticism are forever burning and the demagogues who profit by it are forever stoking them. A famous televangelist regularly calls the Catholic Church the “Great Whore.” Another demands that all homosexuals be rounded up in concentration camps. Another blames hurricanes not on global warming but on Mardi Gras parades. Then there are others who just haven’t thought some things through. They are horrified by the antics of the Taliban yet see nothing wrong with the militant efforts to make America a “Christian Nation” where judges must be approved by pastors, the President must preach at Prayer Breakfasts and Mosaic Law is enforced with fines, prison and death. They listen daily to the shrill voices demanding that the Bible be substituted for the Bill of Rights and that one version of Christianity’s interpretation of scripture become the law of the land.
Discerning which things belong to Caesar and which belong to God has never been easy in America. But when we confuse the sanctuary with the town hall we are in trouble. Faith is precious. Faith is personal. And just because someone’s relationship with God doesn’t look like mine doesn’t mean they don’t have one. When we use our faith like a club and demand that the State coerce where we have failed to convert then it is because our ideas have lost their power to persuade.