jefferson longshot

Hollman HeadshotBy BJC General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman

‘Tis the season—the time of year when we hear outrage about how commercial businesses or public schools recognize or fail to recognize Christmas. Thanks to Starbucks and their red cups without snowflakes, a trumped up allegation of a war on Christmas came early.

The BJC often uses this time of year to explain our country’s tradition of religious liberty, which wisely separates the institutions of religion and government. It is the work of religion — religious individuals and houses of worship — to celebrate and promote religion and religious holidays in all their diversity. The Constitution protects that. While public schools, as institutions of government, can and should teach about religion (including religious holidays), the government should not celebrate or promote Christianity or any other religion. The Constitution protects us from that.

It is also important to recognize that the holiday spirit in the air at a coffee shop or shopping mall has little to do with religion or the Constitution and much more to do with consumerism. No one should confuse the manner in which a business recognizes the customs of its potential customers with the state of religion and religious liberty in America. The suggestion that a paper cup’s design or any retailer’s use of an inclusive holiday greeting reflects harm to Christians is false and should be rejected out of hand.

It is even more troubling to hear public officials connect the supposed hostility toward Christians in this country to the very real and life-threatening religious violence against Christians, Jews, rival Muslim sects and other religious minorities elsewhere in the world. Almost daily, the news presents us with heartbreaking examples of true threats to religious liberty.

The terror attacks in Paris, committed in the name of Islam, seem to have awakened the whole world to these dangers. The individual and communal pain and grief, the devastation to peace and order, and the scope of the problem to be addressed are enormous. Our political and military leaders now face the challenge of responding effectively.

As citizens who enjoy enviable legal protections for our religious freedom and as advocates seeking to defend that freedom and expand it throughout the world, we also have an important role.

We must condemn all violence in the name of any religion, acknowledging the threats within any tradition that can lead to violence.  We must encourage our leaders to reject efforts that misplace blame for violence as inherent in religion. As the evangelical and politically conservative columnist Michael Gerson warned in a Washington Post column, failure to do so will be counter-productive:  “All our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in the United States, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. … [I]f U.S. politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative.”

As the BJC has noted in the past, our own experience and understanding of religion should inform our response and guard against scapegoating:

Can somebody cherry-pick proof texts for violence in the Quran? Yes, you can. But you can do the same in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Should all of Islam — practiced by about one fifth of the world’s population — be impugned by aberrant acts of criminals who happened to be motivated by their perverted understanding of their religion? Absolutely not, no more than all of Christendom can be blamed for violence spawned over the years by the Ku Klux Klan or all Baptists because of the rhetorical terrorism spewed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Confronting violence in a global context will continue to challenge our country. So, too, will protecting religious liberty for all. We must be wary of those who both exaggerate religious liberty problems confronting Christians in America and confuse those issues with violent extremism that harms people of all religions (or none) here and abroad.

From the November/December 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next story.