By Saadia Faruqi
Source: Religious Freedom USA
Today is Election Day: a day when millions of Americans of all colors, religions and ethnicities are taking pride in standing in line waiting to cast their vote. For those like myself – who come from countries where voters are intimidated, entire groups are not allowed to vote at all, and multiple generations live under military rule without seeing even one Election Day – today is a great day indeed! Immigrants from all parts of the world who now call America home proudly and seriously consider voting not just a right but an obligation.
What can mar this beautiful picture of American pride and duty… not media or politicians, but pastors? Politics is indeed a dirty game, but most consider religious institutions above such petty differences. Most people know the IRS rules against political campaigning by religious entities. For those who may not be aware, here’s a summary: while churches, mosques, temples and synagogues may help in voter registration or other forms of election encouragement programs, they may never actively canvass on behalf of any politician. A religious leader of any faith cannot tell his flock to vote for a certain candidate, period.
But in a political climate when well-known personalities talk negatively against entire faiths, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and express your feelings too. In Texas recently, it seems that a preacher didn’t get the memo about these very IRS rules – or perhaps he thinks he’s above the law as a man of God. Pastor Ray Miller of the Church in the Valley is vocal about his support of Romney over Obama, not because of what each promises to bring to the country over the next four years, but because of their supposed religious convictions. The church marquee reads: “Vote For The Mormon, Not The Muslim! The Capitalist, Not The Communist!”
Where do I begin pointing out the problems with this statement? Forget the fact that Obama has stated time and again that he is a Christian, and also that Mormons consider themselves Christian as well. Leave aside the incorrect reference connecting Islam to communism. Let’s not debate whether the statement would be more or less palatable if Obama were indeed a Muslim. My biggest problem with the pastor’s statement is that he has clearly overstepped his boundary and role as a religious preacher. According to news reports, many Christians in the Texas community where this church is located have vocally expressed their disgust at this type of political campaigning. But others have supported it. I cringe at how the Muslim residents of the town must be feeling. At a time when Islamophobia is already at an all-time high, and mosques and temples are being targeted by arsonists and killers, how would it feel to see a pastor of a local church incite your neighbors and colleagues to religious intolerance? What does it say about local faith relations, when people who live in small communities can be so divided over their faiths?
This election year, Muslim candidates have no doubt felt the unfair treatment meted out to them by their opponents due to their religious affiliation, the latest case being that of a congressional candidate in Michigan being accused by a right wing super PAC of planning to bring “Muslim power to America”. Much as I hate this type of political attack, that’s what super PACs are for. But that is definitely not what a pulpit is intended for. A pastor, an imam, a rabbi – these are all in my opinion the last bastion of hope for the ideals of religious harmony, tolerance and understanding which make this country so great. The precepts, of religious freedom on which America was created, demand that we treat everyone with respect. If the leaders of our religious institutions cannot follow these simple etiquettes, what hope do we have of the general public doing so? Take an immigrant’s word for it: voting is an essential part of a free society, and assigning non-political labels to political candidates can have a disastrous impact on overall voter confidence and the future of religious freedom in this country. Let’s keep those lines between church and state from blurring.
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.