Religious liberty is at risk in the United States today. Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to explore the issue of the radicalization of Muslims here in the United States. While this might appear to be a legitimate national security concern, Rep. King’s history and previous statements raise serious questions about his intent.
Civil rights groups, religious leaders, and other minority religious communities have expressed concerns about these hearings. A prominent Baptist ethicist, Dr. David Gushee, wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today this week, voicing concern that “hearings on Muslims could harm us all.” Gushee contends that King’s hearings “threaten the perceived legitimacy of any practice of Islam in the United States, therefore risking one of our most fundamental liberties — freedom of religion.”
Why do Gushee and others see a threat to religious liberty here? Congressional hearings have two purposes. First, televised hearings draw media attention to issues of interest to Congress and to the American public. The McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s, and the Watergate hearings of the 1970s are two of the best examples. Televised hearings create a political opportunity to make a public point. But, secondly, congressional hearings often precede legislation aimed at solving the problem spotlighted by the hearings.
What could Rep. King have in mind as a possible solution to the problem of radical Islam in the United States? If his previous statements are any indication, some curtailment of religious liberty might be proposed. King has been quoted as saying “there are too many mosques” in the United States, a statement he later denied but which Politico.com confirmed. He has also made several other anti-Muslim comments since 2004, but let’s consider his “too many mosques” statement.
If King feels that there are too many mosques in the U. S., what is the solution? Is it to deny building permits to mosques as some communities have tried to do? How would Christians feel if a member of Congress said “there are too many churches” in the United States? Or if a member of Congress painted every Christian with the broad brush of radical extremism, saying that all Christians are hateful because of the actions of a group like the Westboro Baptist Church?
Baptists, my own denomination, were once in the religious minority in this country. We were considered heretics, and our preachers were refused preaching licenses by government authorities. In colonial America, Baptists and others minority sects were persecuted, arrested, and jailed simply because they wanted to practice their faith freely. We know all too well that a threat to the free practice of religion for any is a threat to all. Martin Niemoller’s famous quote might be paraphrased today to read “First they came for the Muslims, but because I was not a Muslim I did not speak out.” It’s time for those who value religious liberty to speak out.