Yelling Fire In A Crowded TheaterPosted by Emily Moskal on September 19th, 2012 – 2 Comments – Posted in atheists, Elections, Islam, Jews, politics, religion
Post by Emily Moskal
Religion is back in the news in its all-too-familiar forms of expression: inflammatory rhetoric followed by violence. Enter Mitt Romney from the safety of the campaign trail, eager to score some political points, when events were still playing out in Benghazi and in Cairo. The fires were, quite literally, still burning when he released this statement:
I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.
There’s a slight problem with his analysis. The people carrying guns weren’t the ones our Embassy in Cairo was reaching out to.
Diplomats don’t plead with extremists, they work with moderates to try to keep them from gaining power. Make no mistake about it, these women are risking their lives to hold this vigil. Being reasonable is dangerous when armed extremists rise up in anger.
While there has been plenty of bipartisan head-shaking surrounding Romney’s decision to criticize the use of nuance in a climate where cartoons whipped up violent rage seven years ago, there has also been a strange reluctance to address the most glaring mistake he made in his assessment. In one sense, he was absolutely right; our deepest values affirm our freedom to ridicule religion in all public spaces. This is a fundamental principle of free speech in a secular society. Where he went wrong (in the most diplomatically inept example of irony I’ve seen in a long time) is in his failure to recognize one simple truth; even in the land of the free and the home of the brave, freedom of speech is not without its limits.
You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, and you can’t attack a religion safely in a land where armed and intolerant radicals who follow that religion hold political power. There is something awfully surreal about Romney’s defense of the virtues of secular society while he simultaneously caters to the religious right’s attempts to tear down the wall between church and state. We need that wall, and we need it to remain high, rigid, and impenetrable so we all can remain free to say what we want without the risk of violence.
Do I think Islam is a peaceful religion? No. September 11th is a day when the entire world is acutely aware of that fact. Do I think Christianity is a peaceful religion? No. The guy who put this video out was a member of a homegrown Christian sleeper cell of people who are paranoid in the extreme about a “New World [read: Secular] Order”. They have guns at the ready to defend themselves against it. They want everyone who is frightened by Islamic extremism to rally behind the banner of Christian extremism. That sort of enemy of my enemy thinking can transform American society, and they know it.
What I sincerely hope people in this country who “don’t follow politics” might take away from the events of the past week is that religious moderates, agnostics, and atheists absolutely must pay very close attention to what is happening in our own backyards. The roots of violent hatred for “the other” that developed into what happened in Benghazi find their expression at home, too. If you have never talked with someone who defends a warped utilitarian position for bombing abortion clinics, you might dismiss it. That would be a mistake. Remember Aiken? The guy who thinks that abortion should be illegal in the case of rape and incest because he simply cannot imagine that God would allow a baby to be conceived if it was a “real rape”? He’s back to a dead heat in the Missouri senate race.
It might be difficult to imagine violent mobs of religious believers in our streets, especially if you lose sight of the fact that less than a century ago, “communist atheists” and their “sympathizers” had their lives destroyed over differences in religious and political philosophy. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of those “enemies”, because he expressed sentiments like this:
If you can name a more lyrical and effective champion of the American Dream, I’m listening. The fact remains, the religious right didn’t care for him. In white middle class America, it was largely the communists, the Jews, and the atheists who were rallying loudly behind him, and many of them suffered for it. Some lost their lives.
We must never lose sight of our past. The America that exists on the horizon if politicians who maintain the absurd notion that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim out to persecute Christians gain the House, the Senate, the White House (and, in so doing, change the makeup of the Supreme Court in the hopes that they will construct an explicitly pro-Christian interpretation of the First Amendment) is a frightening one. When I vote this November, I’ll be voting like my freedom of religion and yours depends on it. I hope you’ll join me.