Issue 87, Fall 2002

by Joan E. Bertin

Last week, the Middle East Forum launched "Campus Watch" to condemn what it calls academic bias on the Middle East; a professor identified on the site was barraged with threatening e-mails. Other professors say it’s "McCarthy-esque" and observe that critics of Israeli policies are charged with anti-Semitism to intimidate and silence them. Adding fuel to the fire, Harvard president Lawrence Summers characterized anti-Israeli statements as "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

He’s not the only one to invest current events with religious overtones, or to suggest that they should be handled gingerly if at all. The Family Policy Network and American Family Association recently sued the University of North Carolina for assigning the book, Approaching the Qur’an, to incoming students. They charged the University with religious indoctrination by presenting a sympathetic view of Islam.

FPN and AFA also attacked the University of Maryland over The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman. The play confronts homophobia in its account of community responses to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard; AFA and FPN object because they view homosexuality as sinful. Last year, a group of state legislators and local residents sued Indiana University-Purdue University over Terrence McNally’s play, Corpus Christi, which they claimed offended Catholics because of its depiction of a gay Christ-like character.

Demands to accommodate religious sensitivities, regardless of the impact, are part of our cultural background noise. Often they are disguised as protecting religious freedom, as if exposure to contrary beliefs itself infringes free exercise.

This argument turns the First Amendment on its head. The First Amendment protects religious expression, along with speech, as integral to the freedom of conscience—the right to believe or not believe without state interference. It does not compel belief, and does not privilege believers. It demands tolerance for dissenting viewpoints, since freedom of conscience cannot exist without a right of dissent.

Believers who reject the idea of dissent, at least on religious matters, may find this problematic. However, they can’t have it both ways. Those who claim their religious freedom permits them to suppress other viewpoints weaken the very foundations of their own freedom. Not to mention the foundations of education.