Monday, March 10, 2008

Freedom of Religion--an American myth?

Growing up, like all American school kids, I was told that I could one day be President, once I turned 35. Because I was born in the U.S. And any kid born in the U.S. can be president.

Of course, what you soon learn is that, this isn't *quite* true.

On the "face" of it, looking at the lineage of past U.S. Presidents, two things immediately appeared to make me wonder whether *I* could be President of the United States (it seems obvious, right, what those two things are--because I'm an Asian American woman and past presidents...are not). And then, of course, when you realize what has to happen to win a campaign--the amount of money involved, and the kind of political life and political connections that one has to have (and yes, I am invoking the word "Experience") it made me see that I really can't be president.

The other thing I'd have to worry about, of course, is that I'm a lapsed Catholic. And while JFK broke the Protestant barrier, he didn't break the devout barrier--at least the appearance of faith and devotion. And, along with being married (to a person of the opposite sex) and having children (because it seems, at least in the modern presidency, we also require our presidential candidates to be fertile), we also want our candidates to have faith.

But not just any faith--we want them to be Christian (and I am counting Catholic as Christian--I know in certain circles there is a distinction, but I think that both Protestants and Catholics believe in the same basics, even if they differ by points of doctrine).

Nicolas Kristof has an interesting Op-Ed piece in The New York Times about the newest form of bigotry and about Barack Obama (click here for the essay).

In a nutshell, Kristof talks about the recent attacks on Obama based on his name and the prejudiced and slanderous rumors (one is that he is the anti-Christ--because of COURSE the anti-Christ would admit to being Christian before running havoc on the world) and then there are the usual rumors of being part of a Muslim terrorist sleeper cell. [aside: I agree with Obama--I think the sound of the Muslim call to prayer is beautiful and is one of the fond memories I have of visiting Istanbul]

But really, Kristof raises a good point--if Barack Obama were Muslim, we would not accept him. It seems that many Americans who would decry racism and sexism would have no problem showing bigotry around religion (and we can look at Mitt Romney's candidacy to see that bigotry isn't contained to non-Christian faiths--Mormons are also Christians but he faced a fair amount of bigotry based on his own faith). And this is sad. We live in a country that is supposed to be free of religious bigotry--where we are free to worship in any way we like.

But is this really true? Especially in a post-9/11 world, can you really be an American Muslim in this country and practice your faith openly and without fear of censure and prejudice? I fear not.


Brian Hunt said...

What a timely blog this is. I just had this same conversation with my Father the other day. He is a life-long democrat that is currently supporting Clinton (mainly because he still has doubts about Obama's ability to actually be elected -he still doesn't think that a black candidate can win in November). He likes Obama, but does have concerns about his rumored connection to Islam. I offered up that a candidates religion should not be criterion for holding political office. My Father is Christian (Baptist)and really doesn't know a lot about Islam. The vacuum created by what he doesn't know of the religion can only be filled by the radical Wahibism that makes up the nightly news. I think that his view is pretty common amongst a large segment of the population. If Obama is the Democratic candidate in November, he will vote for him, but the concern over his religion will still be present in his mind. The only thing that seems to be worse than being Muslim is being Atheist. Freedom of religion seems to mean having a religion, but not being free from religion. Most Americans can accept someone with a different religion, but not the Godless by choice. A Gallup Poll taken in February of 2007 showed that an Atheist is less electable than being Catholic, Jewish, Female, black, Hispanic, Mormon, thrice married, over 72 years of age, or even homosexual. Atheist was the only category that couldn't get better than 45% of the electorate. I won't complain too much though. Almost 1 out of 2 voters is progress.

Genepool said...

What intrigues me about religion and religious people is the assumption that religion and morality somehow go hand in hand. This is the leap of logic most voters take when considering religious background in a candidate. Its a very serious matter to people who truly believe.
Or so I'm told.

For people like me who simply shake their heads at the idea of kneeling to commune with spiritual entities sitting on thrones of clouds, the whole thing is just silly. Not that I am putting it down, I respect peoples right to worship in whatever manner they choose to do it, I just don't GET it.

Politics along with race, and income level, religion is just one more thing to be divided over.

Kris Kristofferson said it best...

Jennifer said...

Glad this post was timely for you. A friend of mine actually went to a talk in his midwestern college town where the speaker, a Muslim American activist and academic, was asked by an audience member if Barack Obama could really be elected as President of the United States given his religious affiliation as a MUSLIM.

So yes, a lot of people DO think he is muslim -- which puzzles me (maybe because I know so much of his biography from reading DREAMS FROM MY FATHER) and it makes me wonder why and where do they get this idea--from the Republican fear-mongering machine? From the fact that his middle-name is Hussein?

And Genepool, while I'm not an atheist, I am agnostic, in the sense that I am a fence-sitter--I don't quite have faith and yet I can't dismiss that there may, indeed, be a higher power out there. I do find people's devotion very compelling and powerful--there is something that is moving, to me, about people in Church expressing their faith--perhaps its an envy of a type of certainty that the skeptical and cynical side of me can't attain.

So I'm sort've with you on feeling like people who are very religious and devout puzzle me because I don't know that I've ever had that much certainty about a matter of faith. It leaves me in awe--and also makes me sad when I think about the kind of sectarian violences and the kinds of wars and battles waged across the millenium in the name of various religions and faiths.

I suppose it's blind faith and blind devotion and single-minded religious zealotry that I really have a problem with.

Again, can't we just abide by the rule of kindergarten and agree that we don't always have to like each other but that everyone is worthy of respect and we shouldn't hit someone who doesn't agree with us? And we shouldn't take away someone else's toys because we want them.

Tami said...

What I find most odd about the electorate's religious litmus test is that even "cheat" answers will placate us. It's not so much religion we want. It is the semblance of religion or "faithiness." The reality of most Christians in this country is that we aren't all that devout. We believe in some sort of God, but we rarely think about him. We may stumble into church on Christmas or Easter, but not every Sunday. We may remember a Bible passage or two from Sunday school, and have the vaguest grasp on a few "thou shalt nots," but we are hardly theologians. That's how most of us do religion. However, we require out presidential candidates to talk at length about how "I am guided by my faith." We want presidential candidates to pretend to be "super Christians," while the rest of us are nothing of the sort.

Given that so few of us are that into religion, it intrigues me that we are so concerned about each other's spiritual habits. Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon--what difference does it make?

Jennifer said...

I wonder about the same thing that you commented on--is it that we really want people to be faithful/devout or we just want the appearance of this kind of religiosity? Here's the other funny thing: I think that religious devotion is usually associated with Republicans--in other words, when we think of religious faith being an important quality for one party, it's probably associated with Republicans.

BUT...if I think about the past presidents in the last 40 years, the ones I think of as being really associated with strong religious identities are JFK, LBJ, Clinton, and the one that tops them all--Jimmy Carter (who teaches Sunday school TO THIS DAY!).

But Reagan, Nixon??? Not figures I immediately associate as religious or affiliated with a religious identity or religion.

I also wonder at church/synagogue/mosque attendance. I, myself, are among the non-devout--but we keep hearing about the "average American" and you do hear about these mega churches--so I assumed that most Americans do go to church or Temple or Mosque, but maybe'd be interesting to see some stats.

Eastern Reflections said...

Good post! I agree too.....the idea of freedom of religion in this country exists in a sense that anybody in this country can worship as they choose....but the darker side is that there is still sadly many suspicions and outright hatred towards others of another faith.

Me, frankly....I will think this country is truly great when we elect the first lesbian minority female into the Oval Office......but that's just idealistic dreaming on my part right now, haha.