By the People

By the People

By Lincoln E. Steed

At first I thought the interview on BBC Shortwave radio was with an official of then imploding Zimbabwe regime in Africa. I'd tuned in midpoint, just in time to hear him extol the virtues of a one-party state. Yes, the official maintained, a one-party state could adequately represent the democratic interests of the population if they were agreed that they wanted just the one party. H'mm. It did sound a little self-serving. I listened more closely through the transatlantic static for what might come next.

Big surprise when the subject of the interview was identified as the foreign minister of the Maldives. We don't often hear from that part of the world. What else might he say? The interviewer was obviously not going to let pass that glib assurance of one-party utopia. "What about religious freedom? Does it exist in the Maldives?"

At once the minister was on the defensive. "Well, yes, of course we have religious freedom in the Maldives," he spluttered. But actually it is not an issue there, since 100 percent of the population are Muslim." Heavy static still, but I imagine I can hear the collective breath sucking of listeners around the globe.

Persistently the interviewer pressed the point. "But what about visitors, foreign workers, do they have the legal right to practice their faith in your country?" I smiled, expecting a waffling, evasive answer. "No," was the reply. You might as well expect us to allow Al Qaeda into our country."

What a leap of bigotry! What a manipulation of the fear of terrorism in the service of religious intolerance. And if I am to believe the good government minister, his comments accurately reflect the national democratic mood of his country.

Actually he demonstrates the dark, frustrating side of the West's efforts to encourage the development of democratic regimes around the world. There has been a simplistic assumption that the democratic process will create freedom. But this is not necessarily so. While we could have a rich discussion on the actual state of democracy in the Maldives, I have no doubt that on the issue of religious freedom the minister's remarks accurately represent the majority view. Sometimes the majority opinion is so ill-informed, bigoted, or emotionally driven that a group or a nation will act againsi basic rights—rights of others or even their own rights.

Which brings me back to these United States. It was quite amazing to listen to the public dialogue after the election 2000 fiasco. A large percentage of those who offered their two cents worth appear to have slept through history and government classes in school. Upset that a plurality of votes might have gone to the losing candidate, they tended to rail against the betrayal of democracy, believing that we are ruled by the majoritarian view. Not necessarily so in a representative system of government, based on democratic principles, but not on pure majority rule.

The Maldives and religious freedom is a clarifying example of where a majority view can lead. Ir the United States the majority havo~ subscribed to a shared

Constitution that codifies the principles that will guide our democratic process. Hammered out from the experiences of history, the moral vision of the Founding Fathers and a round of political compromises, the Constitution, if adhered to, is proven to be a bulwark against oppression and intolerance. How frightening that so many see our response to the threat of terrorism hampered by the Constitution. How sad that so many are chafing against its limitations on our forming a sort of fundamentalist response to the religious fanaticism we face abroad.

Exhibit A to illustrate the point may seem a bit far-fetched, but I'll stand my ground and give it. The voucher issue has bumbled about the U.S. scene for several years now. Only three states have tried the plan, while voters in many more have rejected vouchers. Perhaps tellingly, in a California ballot referendum in the 2000 election voters defeated the idea 70 percent to 30 percent. And this was in the context of a significant conservative trend in the nation.

As I write this the issue of vouchers is before the Supreme Court, with a decision expected by midyear. And so much has changed that the buzz is that the SC will approve vouchers. Well, many times in the past we've learned not to prejudge the justices. But it does seem likely they will acknowledge a clear shift in national mood and find a constitutional rationale for the idea. A CSPAN poll in February showed a preference to vouchers almost the exact reverse of the California rejection. And all the print media are bannering vouchers as the next big thing.

What has changed? No new proof of vouchers' effectiveness, to be sure. No new and convincing argument. They exist, as always, in the politically charged speech of public school failure, which ignores the role of collapsing social structures. They gain favor in these self-help laissez-faire times as a way to bring money back to the private sector. And they exist, as always, on the constitutional fringe as an entering wedge issue for those who would use the government to fund a broad-based effort to establish state orthodoxy on the road to a Christian state.

Vouchers have always swum in a milieu that was ideologically suspect. In fact it was the milieu rather than the details of implementation that presented the greater danger. But now it appears that a campaign that dodged discussion of real goals and concentrated instead on the mythology of educational utopia, combined with a very real public swing toward security through state sponsorship of values, has won over the electorate and put pressure on the court. And make no mistake about it, the pressure is to move in a direction that will at the very least strain the First Amendment and at the worst turn it inside out by establishing state religion. But only with the majority concurrence, of course.

Of late the mere invocation of the term separation of church and state has marked a marginalized position. As though bypassing the constitutional text will enable us to reconstitute our public morality and establish a suitably strong state to wage crusade against infidels. It is time to remind ourselves of the role the Constitution was intended to play. Not something to skirt through technicality on the way to goals of expediency. Not something superceded by majoritarian vote—even by justices. No, a shared statement of the founding principles of republican freedom. A denial of those freedoms by even a majority will be just as aberrant to true freedom as the self-supposed religious liberty in the Maldives.

Lincoln Steed, Editor

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."