President Obama’s Mosque Visit Calls Us to Honor the Religious Freedom of Others

Written By: Chelsea Langston

In February President Obama delivered a 45-minute speech during his first visit to a US mosque. There has been controversy about his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore because of some disquieting past associations of the mosque, and yet the president’s remarks are worthy of careful consideration.

President Obama’s remarks focused on religious tolerance in general, but also called to attention the important role of religious institutions in American society. Obama stated: “This mosque…You’ve been part of this city for nearly half a century. You serve thousands of families -- some who’ve lived here for decades as well as immigrants from many countries who’ve worked to become proud American citizens.” Obama used the mosque to highlight the myriad ways in which religious institutions serve their own faith adherents as well as the larger community.  

The president highlighted the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s diverse functions and services: house of worship, early childhood education provider, sports and recreation facility, and, yes, even host of Scout troops.  Obama further stated: “There’s a health clinic that serves the needy, regardless of their faith.  And members of this community are out in the broader community, working for social justice and urban development.” 

These comments highlight two important truths that bolster religious freedom for faith institutions of varied faiths across the country: 

1. The exercise of religion extends beyond individual, private worship within a church, mosque, or synagogue and out into the community.  Even within a house of faith, the institutional practice of a faith entails providing services to the faith community, and often, to those who do not share the same faith.  

2. It is not necessary for Christian and Jewish Americans to find common theological ground with followers of Islam to find common ground in a mutual desire to expand religious freedom to apply beyond worship. Diverse faith institutions across America, whether Muslim or Greek Orthodox or Evangelical, already know this to be true: religious freedom must extend beyond protecting the explicitly religious aspects of houses of worship and FBOs. Religious freedom must reach out to protect the faith-shaped services these faith institutions provide to their members and to their communities.

“Religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion but because religion helps strengthen our nation..”

The president also emphasized America’s long history, going back to our founding fathers, of holding religious freedom and religious diversity to be foundational American values: “[W]hen enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.” Obama explained that over 200 years ago, followers of Islam were regularly known as Mahometans. Obama referenced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, stating that Jefferson penned this piece of legislation “to protect all faiths -- and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now -- “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” 

The president went on to say that we should not only tolerate diverse faiths, and the expressions of those faiths, but we should recognize what Thomas Jefferson did: “religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion but because religion helps strengthen our nation.” 

It is essential to advance not only religious freedom, but also the connection between allowing institutional religious expressions to flourish and the strengthening of our communities and our country.  Our nation is best when it acknowledges our diversity of faith-based service organizations, each committed to serving its neighbors in uniquely faith-shaped ways.  Our nation is stronger when service recipients have a choice of services, including services that have a religious dimension, so that they can find services that meet their unique needs.  Our nation is stronger when we honor the organizational freedoms of religious relief and development entities, whether World Vision, Islamic Relief USA, or Catholic Relief Services, which serve simply because their respective faiths call them to serve a certain need, in a distinctive way.  

So how should people and institutions of faith respond in a time of tangible threats to the religious freedom of Muslims, mosques, and Islamic institutions? On January 21st, 40 faith leaders from a diversity of religions in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, came together to sign a statement to address the mounting threats to the religious freedom of Muslims. The statement did not assert that people of different religions all worship the same God.  Nor did the statement try to downplay the very real differences that exist in the fabric of the American religious landscape.  Rather, the statement used religious difference as a launching pad toward common freedom. The statement, in part, reads: “[T]he First Amendment stands as the foundation upon which has been built the world’s most religiously diverse nation, and . . . infringing the religious liberty of one group diminishes the rights of all.”

The statement by Lehigh Valley faith leaders also focused on the importance of respecting the variety of religious institutions in their community, as well as the private faith of individuals: “We affirm the values that we cherish as Americans:  free inquiry, respectful encounter with others, tolerance of diverse viewpoints and peaceful co-existence among a wide array of religious bodies, groups and organizations.” 

This statement can be a model for religious leaders across the country to affirm the religious freedom of individuals and institutions that hold different beliefs and practices than their own.  In a time where religious freedom undoubtedly has a perception problem when called upon by certain conservative Christian communities, perhaps the most important thing they can do is to assert their recognition that religious freedom is not just for themselves but also for their neighbors, not just for their own faith-based organizations, but also for the religious organizations of other faiths.

 - ‎Chelsea Langston is the Director of Equipping and Membership at Center for Public Justice. A version of this article originally appeared on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance website.