The United States pioneered religious liberty. If we don't understand the concept, no one does. Yet, lately, it seems that some of us are acting like we just don't get it.
A disturbing wave of Islam bashing is washing over the country.
Some people are actually in court, trying to block Muslims from exercising their right to build worship facilities. Legislators in a few states have introduced bills to ban Shariah Islamic law even though no one is trying to impose it.
One group calls itself "Stop Islamization of America." Stop Islamization? Can anyone explain to me how a religion that makes up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is going to pull that off?
In an atmosphere like this, a congressional hearing on "radicalization" of the American-Muslim community is the last thing we need. Yet, thanks to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., it's what we just got.
King insists he's only concerned about terrorism. It's a common tactic these days. It seems any violation of civil liberties becomes acceptable in the guise of fighting terrorism.
There are ways to oppose terrorism that don't involve smearing an entire religion. There are ways to oppose terrorism that don't invoke witch hunts. Yet these are King's tactics, and they run the risk of backfiring by fostering a dangerous mentality of "us vs. them." It looks like hypocrisy in the Muslim world because it is.
We've been this way before and should know it's not a good place to be. In the mid-19th century, Roman Catholics were looked upon as suspect. Catholic-Protestant tensions sparked riots in some cities.
During World War II, we falsely assumed that Americans of Japanese ancestry were not loyal.
Many innocent people lost their jobs during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s.
Post Sept. 11, the country saw a wave of attacks on Muslims or people perceived to be Muslim. These assaults continue today. In Sacramento, two men recently pleaded no contest to beating a Sikh cabdriver whom they assumed was Muslim.
King's hearing runs the risk of further inflaming tensions by validating the lie that Islam is an inherently violent religion that sponsors terrorism. In fact, the vast majority of the world's 1 billion Muslims have repudiated terrorism. King's hearing recklessly tars Muslims with the brush of fanaticism.
Ironically, many conservatives who back the King hearing were outraged in April 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning of a rise in right- wing extremism. For the federal government to even identify such a possibility was offensive to some conservatives.
A large part of the problem is that King is simply an imperfect messenger. He was one of the first federal legislators to protest when an Islamic group in New York announced plans to build a house of worship in lower Manhattan, even though the group was only doing something Christians do every day. In light of King's intolerance, it's hard to believe his goal isn't more Muslim bashing.
All Americans, no matter their religious or philosophical outlook, must abide by our laws. In exchange, they receive the religious liberty guaranteed by our Constitution. When we single out a faith for attack, our nation violates its part of the bargain and behaves in a fundamentally un-American way.
The Rev. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Web site: www.au.org.