By Paul M. Lewis
As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.
At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.
It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.
Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” – “Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.
Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.
Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?
This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.
Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.
Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.