The State Department’s dangerous version of ‘religious tolerance’

Dr. Brian Lee Pastor, Christ Reformed Church
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Ten days ago the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — under siege from riotous mobs — issued a despicable statement vitiating the freedom of religion. It could fairly be chalked up as a loss of nerve under fire, and the statement was quickly abandoned by the Obama administration, condemned by the Romney campaign, and removed from the Embassy website.

Now the U.S. State Department is doubling down on its perfidy, using $70,000 of taxpayer funds to run television ads in Pakistan purportedly “distancing” the U.S. government from an Internet video. Unfortunately, these ads also enshrine a “religious tolerance” that dare not offend. By rejecting both “all efforts to denigrate” as well as the content of a particular message, we as a nation are now advertising our intolerance toward specific kinds of speech, religious or otherwise.

Crucially, this understanding of tolerance — premised on the widespread belief that true religion must be banal and inoffensive — is substituted for our true constitutional liberty, namely the free exercise of religion, which may in itself disparage others.

Superficially, the advertisement is inoffensive, made up entirely of quotes from public statements made by President Obama and Hillary Clinton:

President Obama: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.”

Secretary of State Clinton: “Let me state, very clearly, and I hope it is obvious, that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”

I understand the desire to distance oneself and our nation from the crudest forms of anti-Muslim discourse, and this video certainly qualifies. But as Clinton admits, it’s not entirely clear that anyone, even in the Middle East, believed this video was produced or sponsored by the U.S. government. In fact, that denial serves as something of a fig leaf for the advertisement’s central message, which is a condemnation of the video’s content and message, as well as “all efforts to denigrate religious beliefs of others.”

Note that Obama and Clinton aren’t simply personally rejecting the message. By using the first person plural “we,” they are not speaking for themselves, but in the place of their office, and for our country, as the two highest and most recognizable American officials on the international stage.

The advertisement is therefore a condemnation of protected speech by the U.S. government — and religious speech, at that. The danger of these statements for freedom of speech and religion, issued personally by our highest government officials, lies in its subtlety. Cloaked in the platitudes of tolerance is an explicit limitation on protected speech.

The error is fundamental, and particular. Fundamentally, the United States does not respect all faiths. Rather, it isn’t the respecter of any faith. The Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing, or respecting, any faith, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. You may say this is due to an inherent regard for religion; it is more likely a bulwark against the terrors of religious tyranny. Thus the Constitution protects the exercise of faiths which many, even a majority, may find unrespectable.

Furthermore, while I personally reject the denigration of opposing religious beliefs, our government does not. It cannot. The freedom of speech stands alongside the freedom of religion, protecting the right to verbally pour scorn upon, belittle, or degrade opposing religions.

Even if we understand the denigration of religious beliefs to go so far as to entail defamation, the U.S. government does not criminalize this act, but rather allows it as a ground for civil legal actions. Even the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has ruled that the criminalization of libel violates the freedom of expression.

The error is also particular. How can the government “absolutely reject” the “content and message” of the anti-Muslim video? While crudely communicated, many of the ideas expressed have been communicated elsewhere by historians and religious critics of Islam. Does our government reject these messages as well? Or is the State Department passing subjective value on the tone of the message?

A cornerstone of Old Testament prophetic religion was the denigration of idols, and those who worshiped them. The Psalmist mocks the idols who have ears but cannot hear, and feet but cannot walk, and warns that those who worship them are bound to become like them (Psalm 115). The New Testament church, unlike Israel in the Old Testament, is scattered throughout the world, and endeavors to live peacefully alongside the worshipers of false gods. Yet still it proclaims that on the last day “every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10 – 11), and urges us all to be prepared to give a defense for the hope that we have within us.

To tell idolaters and atheists alike that they will soon bow before Jesus may not seem to be an expression of respect. To explain to an idolater the folly of his way may seem to denigrate. Yet this speech — and other evangelistic and apologetic language — is essential to the free exercise of my religion, and protected by the Constitution.

I fear the new U.S. policy of tolerance being sold abroad will soon criminalize the Christian faith.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.