There is always a danger when religious people become so immersed in their identity that they cannot see how they view other so-called non-believers.
Unfortunately, we too often confuse the notion of religious observance with being more authentically religious.
I love ritual and I honor people of all religious faiths. I have know plenty of people over the years who are strictly observant — whether they be Jewish, Christian or Muslim — who are fine and decent people. They set a good example and make a strong case for why religion is a positive force in American life.
The other side of this coin is when some who consider themselves fervently observant in theology and, in following the laws, customs and practices of their faith, cannot seem to see the big picture of American life and who too often spew hatred against others.
This religious arrogance only diminishes the credibility of their religion and spreads bigotry rather than the love and tolerance which all religions are supposed to support and adhere to. We could no doubt cite examples of elected officials or religious leaders from all the faith traditions who have a radical constituency that condemns other religions. They include rabbis, priests, ministers and imams.
The recent political spat over one of the newest Muslim congresswomen goes to the core of this sad phenomenon of religious bigotry. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota attacked Judaism and the Jewish people though her vitriolic comments. She spewed the old time anti-semitic tropes that Jews control the money in America and in Congress. This is hate speech against not only Israel but incendiary political rhetoric against her fellow Americans.
Fortunately, she later apologized for her remarks. One can only hope that her actions and future relationships to her Jewish colleagues and the rest her congressional peers and to her constituents will show true remorse and that her future actions will match her words.
The fact that she is the first congresswoman to wear a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women, sets an example for Muslim religious observance in political leadership in America. It is worn by Muslim women in the presence of any male outside of her family. The hijab represents the Islamic practice of modesty.
In Judaism, observant women will also wear a head covering for the same purpose of modesty. Others wear a sheitel, a wig that Orthodox Jewish married women wear to cover their heads in public to preserve their modesty.
One can and should respect those who choose to uphold those traditions and values.
We have had Orthodox Jews serving in the Congress who have followed the traditional observances of the Sabbath and the Jewish dietary laws. The most famous example is former Sen. Joseph Lieberman from Connecticut.
One’s private religious practice should have nothing to do with how we judge the effectiveness of an elected official. Yet, when one is the first, as Rep. Omar was in wearing a hijab in Congress, it certainly attracts public attention. She has to be much more thoughtful because she is the first to bring a new ritual practice from her religion into the political arena.
Sadly, people project their insecurities onto people who represent change. But when people of faith such as Rep. Omar play into those fears and prejudices with their own hate speech, they give an unnecessary excuse for others to legitimize those biases.
We should welcome our congressional representatives and senators who practice their religions. Elected officials have a moral duty to represent themselves, both in their public speech and in their private lives, as moral people who practice not only Constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of religion, but who also embody for the rest of society the value that a person’s religion does not divide or create dissension. They should instead unify and strive to make us a better nation.
I hope Rep. Omar can achieve that standard. Her career and those of her co-religionists who follow her into public life will depend on her to do so.
There should be no tolerance for elected officials who support anti-semitism, racism or any form of bigotry against fellow Americans.
I pray that representative Omar has learned that lesson.