Fulwider, 1-18-2016

My Word: Who does — and doesn’t — deserve religious freedom?

Fulwider, Bryan(Orlando Sentinel, January 18, 2016)

By Bryan Fulwider

Results on a poll about religious freedom are disturbing.

When I read the headline “Poll: 82% value Christian rights over other faiths” (Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 31), I shuddered. Has our nation drifted that far from the Enlightenment principles embraced by our nation’s Founders?

Fortunately, no. The headline writer simply hadn’t read the article carefully.

The poll actually shows that, of those surveyed, 61 percent said it was “extremely important” or “very important” to uphold religious freedom for Muslims, the religion with the lowest survey ratings. A similar percentage strongly defended religious freedom for those with no religion (which is about 30 percent of our population). “About 7 in 10 said preserving Jews’ religious freedom was important, while 67 percent said so of Mormons,” the article said.

To be accurate, the headline could have read: 21% value Christian rights over the rights of Muslims and those of no religion.

The fact that 61 percent see religious freedom for all groups listed in the survey as extremely important or very important could be seen as heartening. If a president won the electoral college with that percentage, it would be considered a mandate. If he or she garnered 61 percent of the popular vote, it would be celebrated as a landslide.

But we’re not talking about partisan politics. We’re talking about a foundational, nonpartisan principle that’s at the very heart of our concept of “liberty and justice for all.”

So it’s deeply concerning that only 61 percent of those surveyed gave enthusiastic and unqualified support to what has historically been such a crucial component of our national identity. We’ve claimed international “bragging rights” and the moral high ground as we’ve sought to help developing nations embrace and codify similar governmental values.

As a nation, we’ve felt morally superior to those governments where the religious majority enjoys rights and privileges that aren’t accorded to religious minorities. So shouldn’t we be concerned when polls tell us that right here in the United States, 21 percent of the population don’t view it as extremely important or very important to provide the same level of religious freedom for Muslims and those of no faith as we give to Christians?

Although some see Christians as more deserving of religious freedom than others in the religious pecking order, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that 18 percent of those surveyed don’t feel it’s extremely important or very important to uphold religious freedom for Christians.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, we remember his admonition, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Given his strong advocacy for embracing those from other religions, certainly his call would be for equal rights, freedom and protection for every faith tradition. Only then can the “beloved community,” which King envisioned, come fully to life.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida and one of “Three Wise Guys” on the WMFE-FM radio program “Friends Talking Faith.”