Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Islam, Religious Freedom, and American Public Life

Michael J. Gerson


July 1, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

During the last few years, a debate has grown over the place of Islam in American life.  Recently, a Republican candidate for president, Herman Cain, said the he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or administration.  He later revised his statement, saying that Muslims could serve, but only after special scrutiny not given to Catholics or Mormons.

Another Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, has repeatedly warned about the threat of sharia law to the American form of government.  A few states have moved to preemptively ban sharia as the basis for laws or judicial decisions. Some Americans even claim that Islam is not a religion at all, but rather an oppressive political system that does not deserve the protections of pluralism. 

These views are both uninformed and inconsistent with the American ideal. 

Islam is a global faith with more than a billion adherents.  Its internal theological debates are at least as complex as the arguments within Christianity.  Its view of politics varies from Saudi Arabia, to Tanzania, to Mali, to Indonesia, to Detroit.  Some Muslims define sharia as identical to 7th century Arabian social practices—which is a challenge to pluralism.  Others view sharia as a ideal of justice that is not identical to any human government.

It is simply not accurate to identify all Muslims with a single religious or political tradition.

Those who seek a conflict with Islam itself have not thought very deeply about the consequences. For the last several years, American troops have fought beside Muslim forces in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  These Muslims have risked their lives to oppose radicalism and tyranny.  There could be no war against terrorism without the support of Muslim allies. 

And there are, of course, Muslims in the American military who defend our country each day. And Muslims who serve ably in public office.  It would be unfair and unjust to declare their faith as somehow beyond the protections of the American Constitution. 

In politics, it is not the purpose of Christians to favor Christianity.  The purpose of Christians is to favor a certain view of human beings and their rights that is rooted in their faith.  Because men and women share God’s image, the most important human right is the right of conscience—the right to seek and worship God without interference.  Freedom of religion is the way that America honors the image of God in each person.  There is no freedom without religious freedom.

Our government should aggressively oppose violence and incitement to violence in every form, religious or secular.  It should investigate and prosecute terrorists, whatever their background.  But, according to the Constitution, our government cannot single out any faith for blanket discrimination.  And no matter what some political candidates claim, there can be no religious test for public office. When it comes to our public life, Americans should be judged by their behavior and their commitment to the Constitution—not by their faith. 

—Michael Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).





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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”