What Do You See In This Picture?

Last year, my Public Policy Office started a Facebook page, in hopes of spreading the Church’s position on important public issues and to encourage people to be better informed and more active citizens. Over the last nine months, our following has grown substantially — we are closing in on 3,200 “Likes” and our postings regularly reach well over 10,000 people each week. If you’re reading this and you’re not one of them, please visit our Facebook page and “like” us.

The reason for this growth has been a series of ads that consists of a slide show of photos, along with a message about an important issue, like abortion, assisted suicide, human trafficking, and so on. We choose photos because we think they’ll attract people to the ad and we also hope that they will make an important point that’s relevant to the issue.

We have repeatedly run ads on religious liberty. This is one of the most important issues facing the Church and all people of faith. Anyone who has read this blog, followed the US bishops’ statements, listened to the Cardinal, or just read the paper over the past few years should understand how serious the threat is.

Which brings me to our latest ad. The text of the ad says this:

Around the world, people are persecuted for their faith; even an ally, France, has banned personal expressions of faith from public spaces. The U.S. still upholds the value of religious freedom, though it’s under threat – especially conscience protections. Join us for live and social media discussions of religious liberty.

Here’s the first picture of the slide show:

What do you see in this picture?

The comments to our ad showed me that there were some people who didn’t see what I saw. I was astonished at the number of negative comments about Muslim people and Islam, and by  uninformed accusations that the Church does not defend our own religious liberty. I deleted many of the comments because they either used foul language or were so insulting that they had no place on a religious organization’s page. Just as an example of the ones I can repeat, there were blanket accusations that Muslims “hate us”, Islam was called a “demonic religion”, and we were laughably accused of being “politically correct”.

Is that what you see in this picture?

I see a young woman who, as an outward expression of her Muslim faith, has decided to wear the headscarf known as a hijab. She looks to me like a college student that I might see anywhere in America, or a young lady working in an office or store I might visit. I see someone who is proud of her faith, and unafraid to show it. I see someone who is admirable for that.

I also see Malala Yousafzai. She’s the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, a young Muslim woman who was shot by Taliban fanatics because of her advocacy for the education of women. Fortunately, she survived and in all her appearances to speak up for women’s rights, she always wears a hijab as a statement of her faith. She is a tremendous witness to religious liberty and has received dozens of awards and honors, including the annual Mother Teresa Award.

I also see Samantha Elauf. She was the young woman who applied for a job at Abercrombie and Fitch but was denied employment solely because she wore the hijab as an expression of her faith. Her case went up to the Supreme Court in 2015 and thankfully, a unanimous Court upheld her right to wear religious clothing in public without being discriminated against. She is another witness to religious liberty.

I also see Suha Elqutt. She is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab according to her faith. She was going to court recently in Oklahoma to finalize her divorce from an abusive husband. But when she rang the metal detector, the court security officials refused her request to remove her headscarf in private and only in the presence of female officers. Instead they humiliated her by forcing her to uncover her head while crouching between cars in the parking lot where any man could have seen her at any time. Her religious liberty was violated and we all should stand up and defend her.

I also see people of faith in France and elsewhere in Europe. Those nations have been passing laws for over a decade that restrict the ability of people of faith — not just Muslims but anyone — to wear religious garb. Just last year the European Court of Justice (sic) ruled that employers can ban employees from wearing any outward signs of their faith. The specific case involved the hijab, but it would apply equally to a Jewish kippah, the veil of a religious sister or even just a crucifix. That is a frightening state of affairs.

Don’t get me wrong here — I’m not saying that all religions have equal value. I believe our Christian faith is the one true faith and that nobody is saved except by the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). While I respect Muslims as fellow worshipers of the One True God, I believe they have a fundamentally flawed understanding of the nature of God and are laboring under a false revelation. I also know very well that there are some Muslims who are violent and who persecute Christians and Westerners. And I absolutely believe that anyone who breaks the law or commits acts of violence in the name of any religion must be held accountable.

But that’s not what I see in this picture.

The trend in Europe shows why we have to defend the religious liberty of everyone. If it’s denied to anyone, it’s a threat to everyone, and the defense of religious freedom for everyone is in the finest tradition of our American history. It has never been said better than by George Washington, in his famous letter to the Jewish people of Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I think that’s what everyone should see in this picture.

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