Are Christians really committed to religious liberty? Even if it includes Muslims?

As I noted in yesterday’s post, conservative Christians tend to support programs of school choice, whether in the form of charter schools or voucher programs, whether the end result is private schools or homeschooling. I have my own leanings in this area, and my wife and I have our settled convictions on how we want to educate our own children. That said, we recognize that this is an area of Christian liberty. I was educated largely in private Christian schools, though for a few years I was home-schooled as well. My wife, on the other hand, was educated in public schools, her mother was a public school teacher, and her father was a public school principal.

Whatever my own convictions, I recognize that we have a national commitment to ensuring that all children can receive an education, and as far as I am aware, every single state constitution in this country commits its government to ensure that this happens. That means that while I may think a particular means of achieving this is unwise, as a responsible citizen I should not entirely check out of the debates about how to achieve it in a better way. That’s why, in my previous post, I argued that the move toward charter schools is a good thing. I was not saying that I think it is necessarily the best thing.

What is striking to me, however, is the way in which some Christian conservatives have begun to question the practice of home-schooling, or to oppose voucher programs, out of fear that other religious groups may also take advantage of these means of education. These concerned Christians, it seems (and there are concerned nonbelievers among them as well), are fine with liberty for Christian parents when it comes to educating their children, but they do not want to see Muslim parents have the same liberty.

To provide one explicit example from the state of Louisiana, from the Mobile News,

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, says she had no idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s educational system might mean taxpayer support of Muslim schools.

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” the District 64 Representative said Monday.

“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges said.

Hodges mistakenly assumed that “religious” meant “Christian.”

HB976, now signed into law as Act 2, proposed, among other things, a voucher program allowing state educational funds to be used to send students to schools run by religious groups.

Now let’s get one thing straight. The reason why voucher programs are constitutional is because they do not fund religious schools. They give money to parents, and they allow those parents to spend that money wherever they see fit, whether or not that is at a religious school, a nonreligious school, or a home school. The money in vouchers goes to people, not to institutions.

To be sure, when the government does things for the welfare of people, those people might actually live in a religious way. They might actually follow the teachings of their religious tradition. I may choose to use the interstate to get to church on Sunday. I may just donate my tax credit to the local church to help pay the salary of a missionary. This is not the establishment of religion. It’s called religious liberty.

So why do Christians want this for themselves, but not for Muslims? I understand the concerns about radical Islamism and schools that foster terrorism. I agree that all education needs to be regulated and monitored by the state at a certain (minimal) level. But let’s face it, most Muslims are not radical Islamists, let alone terrorists. If they were, life in this country would be very different from the way it is now.

Interestingly, a related issue has arisen in Germany where a court in Cologne actually ruled that if performed for religious purposes male circumcision is illegal when performed on children under 14 years of age. Yes, in the land of the Holocaust the fundamental religious rite of Jewish identity has been declared illegal.

Here again, of course, Muslims are the cause of concern. We have all heard the horror stories about genital mutilation (female circumcision), and however uncommon that procedure might be among most Muslims, however different it might be from male circumcision, in our terror of the Muslims we are willing to give up religious liberty itself. I agree that there is no such thing as the religious liberty to physically harm another human being. Basic human rights trump religious tradition at certain points.

But these are exceptions to the general rule of religious liberty, not the norm. And I worry when we seem so willing to deny the most basic religious liberties to those religious practitioners whom we fear, even when we have no rational reason for doing so.

Where are we going with this? As Christians, as westerners, are we committed to religious liberty or not? Has religious liberty just been a cover for Christian liberty, for a version of a Judeo-Christian establishment that we cannot now extend to others?

We need to remember that when we support the suppression of religious liberty for others we threaten our own liberty as well. We need to figure out whether we are genuinely committed to this fundamental human right or not. And if we are committed to it, we need to learn to stand by it, wherever the chips may fall.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 7, 2012, in Children, Education, Religious Liberty and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Are Christians really committed to religious liberty? Even if it includes Muslims?.

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