The Glorious 108thJames D. Standish January/February 2003
By James Standish
Illustration by Ralph Butler
The beginning of a new Congress is somewhat like the birth of a new baby. Like a child, the new Congress is born with the burden of history sitting fairly across its shoulders, it has much of the DNA of the preceding Congress, and it operates in much the same environment as its predecessors. Yet like a child, there is always hope that a new Congress will throw off the shackles of the unfortunate aspects of its family history and transcend the difficult circumstances it is born into, and go on to achieve true greatness. To achieve this greatness, the Congress must focus on the substance of greatness; the protection and expansion of freedom of conscience.
There is not an elected member who opposes "freedom of conscience." But freedom of conscience needs more than aspirational statements and a lot more than vague congressional puffery. It requires hard, courageous and sometimes costly decisions. The fate of the 108th will hang on whether the courageous prevail. In concrete terms, the 108th will achieve greatness if it: n enacts meaningful protection for people of faith in the American workplace. It is incontrovertible that current law provides minimal incentives for employer's to accommodate the religious practices of their employees even when it is well within their capacity to do so. A broad coalition of 44 different Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh organizations have banded together to push for the passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which embodies the necessary legislative reform. It is time for Congress to get the job done. n makes the fundamental human right to freedom of belief the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Experiments with foreign policy expediency have resulted in the complexities we face today. Not only did the U.S. arm Iraq and the Taliban, but it also supported the shah's repressive regime in Iran that predicated the reactionary revolution. Today, America continues to arm and prop up regimes that subjugate their population and deny them the fundamental right to freedom of belief.
These nations include some of our "best friends" like Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most intolerant nations. In addition, the U.S. is soft-pedaling the suppression of freedom of conscience in some nations like Turkmenistan in order to further short term goals. True greatness comes through dedication to principle, not through following the failed path of realpolitik. There is much this Congress can do to ensure that American power is exercised in a way consistent with the wishes of a freedom-loving people. n resists the temptation to use religion for political gain. Faith is, by its definition, sacred. Using the sacred to advance political agendas is not merely reprehensible, it is sacrilegious. Politicians must "take the high road." In two short years we will know whether the 108th Congress has lounged into the history books of mediocrity or risen to the challenge of greatness. The "Glorious 108th" is here, if we want it.
James D. Standish is executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association. He writes from Washington, D.C