Last week was an active one for religious bigots.
Six Sikhs were slaughtered by a gunman while peacefully going to their house of worship in the outskirts of Milwaukee. The gunman killed himself, so we may never learn the full story of his motivation, but it is clear that he considered his victims’ religion alien to his idea of America, and it’s quite possible he was unaware of the distinction between Sikhism and Islam.
The next day, a Muslim mosque near Joplin, Mo., burned to the ground. The fire has been labeled “suspicious.” Federal agents are swarming the area. A July 4 fire at the same mosque had already been determined to be arson.
It will surprise no one if the culprit turns out to be a nutcase with a hatred of non-Christians and non-Caucasians – someone for whom all Muslims are terrorists.
It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the nativist paranoia behind this terrorism as an aberration. For it echoes through mainstream politics and culture, with right-wing media personalities and elected officials promoting the idea that Christians – who comprise the vast majority of Americans – are somehow the true victims of religious discrimination.
Consider the constitutional amendment Missourians went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved the day after the mosque burned to ashes. It purported to secure the “right to pray.” It passed by a 5-to-1 margin, and no wonder: Its most troubling passages were not spelled out on the ballot.
Yes, the ballot did stipulate that the amendment would guarantee the wholly uncontroversial and already quite secure right of Missourians to assert their religious beliefs. It also made clear that the amendment would establish the right of schoolchildren “to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools.” Many voters weren’t aware of this passage from the amendment that was not included on the ballot: “No student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” Or of the language in the amendment protecting the right of elected officials to pray on public property.
Why is such an amendment necessary, a thinking person might ask, in a state where 80 percent of all citizens are avowed Christians, where churches are socially prominent institutions and where public displays of Christian piety are the stock in trade of successful politicians? Why, while the Muslims of Joplin picked through rubble to salvage remnants of the Quran from their burned mosque, and while the Sikhs of Milwaukee mourned their dead, did the humble Christian folk of Missouri vote to protect the right to pray in this way? Were they thinking of their persecuted brethren of other faiths? Most voters who approved the Missouri prayer amendment likely assumed the proposal sounded innocuous, knowing that their religious freedoms are already guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
But when pressed by media, many backers of the amendment spoke about ensuring that schoolchildren have the right to refuse learning about Buddha, or Islam, or being somehow indoctrinated by learning about how Muslims pray facing Mecca.
And there the true intent of the ballot initiative is discovered. This amendment is for conservative Christians who are offended that they might have to acknowledge that not everyone in America is Christian.
As I write this, I am wearing a white gold cross necklace. There is a St. Christopher’s medal mixed in with the paperclips in a dish on my desk. A few biblical quotes are tacked up too. I can pause anytime I want and say a few words of prayer. As a Christian, I am not under siege. My church will be standing on Sunday.
The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that a section of the amendment (also not spelled out in the ballot language) does not extend its protections to all citizens equally. (To wit, “this section shall not be construed to expand the rights of prisoners in state or local custody beyond those afforded by the laws of the United States.”) Classic. It’s always a red flag when a majority group, falsely claiming discrimination against itself, lays the groundwork for allowing discrimination against another group.
So the question has to be asked: Did the Christian conservatives pushing this amendment offer prayers on behalf of the suffering Muslims in Joplin or the Sikhs in Wisconsin?