Religious freedom discrimination is an increasingly common threat against both Christians and Muslims, according to a panel of journalists, lawyers, and authors hosted by the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).
The solution agreed upon was an increase in acceptance for Muslims, and a “level playing field” for all religions in America.
NRB hosted the September 11, 2019 event to discuss freedom of religion. NRB General Counsel Craig Parshall moderated the discussion, which featured Muslim author and lawyer Asma Uddin and Christian journalist Steven Waldman.
Although Parshall was candidly in support of Waldman, Uddin and Waldman had a lively discussion splitting hairs about the nature of religious discrimination in the United States, and what should be done about it. Parshall asked Uddin about her response to a hypothetical situation about Islamic religious freedom, from a legal perspective. Waldman was asked more intellectual and philosophical questions.
Parshall opened by asking each panelist about their platform for the debate: Uddin pointed out that religion is deeply politicized, and it must be less politicized to move religious freedom forward. She mentioned two kinds of religious conflict, major and minor: i.e., “Christians vs. Muslims,” and accommodations battles. Waldman focused on national media portrayal of religion, alleging a lack of objectivity by media outlets, mentioning the conservatism of Fox and the liberalism of CNN. The journalist started a website built around the idea of “multi-faith” conversation, rather than “inter-faith:” the idea that religious groups should work together for more objective media portrayal and religious freedom, rather than focusing on the commonalities among particular groups.
Both Uddin and Waldman agreed that hate speech codes, which “restrict free speech in public venues, like the kinds used by some public universities, are a bad idea.” All three agreed that Muslims face discrimination; Parshall agreed that Muslims are seen as “sympathetic victims.” Parshall argued that Christians are the victims, and Parshall pointed to judicial system wins for Christians as support. Waldman disagreed with the idea of taking religious disagreements to court, alleging that evangelicals are too interested in the Supreme Court providing religious exemptions for Christians, like in the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). Uddin, however, stated that the main problem lies in a misunderstanding of Islamic law and “overblown concerns about Sharia law.”
The conversation moved from the basic outlines of each members’ beliefs, and into a discussion of particular examples. Reynolds v. United States (1879), wherein the Supreme Court declared polygamy illegal (against Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints beliefs), was an interesting topic. Waldman declared it gave him “mixed feelings,” although he did not elaborate much; he chose instead to point out that before the 1940s, neither the Supreme Court nor Congress took charge of religious freedom: that job was given to the politics of vote-getting. Parshall argued that Reynolds was the right decision; some beliefs must be curtailed, citing Mayan child sacrifice as an extreme view. Uddin argued in response that, if Muslims were allowed the same freedom Christians have in America, they would not “take over America and institute Sharia law.” There should be “freedom for all, not a free for all.”
In the course of the debate, it became apparent that Waldman and Uddin disagreed over how much Muslims deserved focus in the religious freedom debate, although both agreed that Muslims are discriminated against. Waldman simply argued that a level playing field, without a lot of special regard for Muslims (although he noted that Muslims are denied some of the freedoms Christians have), was the way forward. Parshall pointed out that Muslims are perceived as the victims; Christians are the problem. Uddin returned to her “major/minor” distinction and said, “at most, conservative Christians get ridiculed – Muslims are told they don’t belong [in America] and are problems.” Unlike Waldman, Uddin said this debate is about rights, not freedom. Islamic beliefs, she said, get much more media coverage when a Muslim commits an act of violence.
Parshall asked for concluding thoughts and provided his own: “Much offends, but we ought to get over it and focus on the true, and share it on a level field.” Evangelical Christians, Waldman concluded, did the most to progress religious freedom from the Second Great Awakening on, but have now lost that progression. He stated forcefully, Christians must “take it back and defend in front of American Muslims, because that is the biggest threat to religious freedom right now.” Uddin simply stated that Muslims should be a focus (in agreement with Waldman), but more generally that religious freedom without politics was the best way forward. She concluded, “Freedom for all [is essential]… without which all religious freedom chips away.”