As I spend Independence Day weekend in New York City, I have been reminded of the tremendous diversity of our nation in what may well be the most diverse and international city in the world. I am reminded especially of our religious diversity as I walk down the streets of Manhattan and see persons from so many of the world’s religions and persons who see themselves as being part of no religion at all.
Being in New York reminds me of the millions of persons who immigrated to America, many of whom came to Ellis Island just miles from where I am writing this, and many of whom came to escape various forms of religious oppression. In spite of this history, I have a deep concern that we as a country are on the brink of creating an American era of religious oppression if we continue down the path that our president wants to lead us in relation to our Muslim sisters and brothers, and if we continue to increase the fervor of religious nationalism that Trump has cultivated so effectively in his rise to power.
Religious nationalism is neither good for religion nor good for the nation. There is nothing more toxic to human rights and social justice than the combination of religion and nationalism. When religion and nation see each other as instruments for their survival or expansion, true freedom is in peril.
Religious nationalism is an affront to the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves and a barrier to building the Beloved Community. Religious nationalism is also an affront to the ideal of equal protection of all people under the law. A nation that turns its laws against people based on their orientation to religion is no longer a nation of laws, for it is no longer basing its laws on justice and the equal dignity of all persons. As Saint Augustine and Martin Luther King Jr. have reminded us, an unjust law is no law at all.
Loving God and country is great, but if you think people must believe in God the way you do to be in our country, that’s not great, it’s just oppressive. The legacy of religious nationalism is oppression, violence, executions, wars, crusades, inquisitions, colonialism, racism, slavery, pogroms, and genocide. Do not forget this as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr, and Donald J. Trump continue to lead the growing chorus of American religious nationalism.
As we observe the Fourth of July, may we turn away from religious nationalism and turn towards the vision of a country that strives to uphold the free exercise of religion for all people and the freedom of persons who identify with no religion as well.
Patriotism is loyalty to the highest ideals and values of our country, not loyalty to a president who upholds neither and who uses a toxic combination of religion and nationalism to manipulate large numbers of people to gain, maintain, and expand his power. Freedom from religious nationalism is a central ingredient of our country’s identity and one of the many reasons so many have been drawn to the flame of liberty that has the potential to make our country as great as we hope it can be.