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Kolbe Academy, Robert Spencer and religious liberty

9 July 2013 General No Comment Email This Post Email This Post


The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento acted wisely in canceling Robert Spencer’s speaking engagement on church property. Kolbe Academy Home School should now consider canceling his speech entirely at their conference in Sacramento later this month.

Spencer is a co-founder, along with Pam Geller, of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), a shrill and increasingly violent hate group that specializes in stirring up religious bigotry against innocent people.

Spencer poses a clear and present threat to religious liberty, and his hateful rhetoric makes a mockery of the values that most Americans cherish.

In a recent conference in Tennessee, attended by law enforcement because of escalating hate crimes in the area, Geller and Spencer’s SIOA followers cheered at the mention of a mosque that was burned down.

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League correctly writes that Spencer and Geller promote “a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”

He compared it to the anti-Semitism that became fashionable a century ago in Europe, beliefs that led to the Holocaust, history’s greatest crime, and reduced Europe to rubble.

To defeat terrorism, America needs allies — indeed, the best intelligence against religiously motivated terrorism invariably comes from America’s frontline friends in Muslim-majority countries.

By blaming all Muslims rather than the minority who are terrorists, hate-mongers like Spencer would deprive us of our best partners.

Religious bigotry is bad for everybody. When hate-mongers stir up bigotry in a community, Sikhs — and other groups wearing religiously mandated clothing — often become targets of hate crimes.

South Asians, even Latinos, report violent encounters by people insisting they are “terrorists.” When will we learn how dangerous and irresponsible stirring up religious hatred is to people in all faith communities?

Religious liberty isn’t just Fourth of July rhetoric; it’s the very basis of the American way of life. That means freedom isn’t just for your religion, or mine — it’s for everybody.

I’m thrilled that Napa County is home to Christians, Jews, Punjabi-speaking Sikhs, atheists, Muslims, Unitarians, even a Wiccan or two. The genius of religious freedom is that no single group will ever be strong enough to inhibit or control the others.

It’s smart, it’s simple and it works; but religious liberty must be defended by patriots willing to stand up to hate-mongers.

Religious liberty is for all people, but it resonates well with the best Christian values. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a timeless appeal to look beyond religious labels to the behavior of individuals.

The Good Samaritan belonged to a despised religious group; yet as Jesus points out, his behavior was far more compassionate, and hence more exemplary, than the actions of the self-righteous upholders of religious orthodoxy.

This was clearly Jesus’ attempt to teach us, through the medium of an inspired parable, that the good or bad behavior of individuals trumps the prejudice that we hold against groups. The parable of the Good Samaritan suggests the supreme importance of religious tolerance in civil society.

Yes, I know that Spencer has written persuasively on the subject of Catholic education applied to the home school model — but his path has taken too many extreme right turns in the last few years for him to serve as an exemplar to the young.

Kolbe Academy, with its intense dedication to the Ignatian educational tradition, is an irreducible and dynamic part of religious education in Napa County. Thus, it is all the more important that Kolbe makes a decision that sends a positive public message about its core values.

Of course, Spencer’s hate speech is protected by the Constitution, and no doubt there are many places in Sacramento where he can speak. But his recent declarations and behavior have become far too hateful for him to be associated directly with the Kolbe conference.

The very name Kolbe, as you know well, comes from a Catholic martyr who died at Auschwitz. Would you now place yourself on the side of those whose appeals to hate and intolerance are all too reminiscent of European fascism?

When people cheer the burning of a house of worship, as the followers of Spencer and  Pam Geller did in Tennessee, it is nothing less than a hate crime against religious liberty.

And since America will fail as a democracy if religious liberty fails, it is also a hate crime against America.

So, Kolbe Academy, what will it be? Will it be business as usual, or will you seize this opportunity to stand as an exemplar of religious liberty for all Americans?

Swaim is executive director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, and lives in Angwin.

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