The lakefront breeze cooled a crowd of more than 1,200 in the Hall of Philosophy, under soaring Doric columns in a structure reminiscent of the ancient Parthenon.
“It will forever be one of the honors of my career to have been invited to join y’all during this weeklong celebration of religious freedom and free expression – at the same place and one-year, almost to the day, after the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie,” I told the crowd at the Chautauqua Institution Aug. 16. “Gathering together, in community, in this place, to celebrate in the shadow of that authoritarian religious violence is a tribute to the freedom of the human mind.”
Last year, Rushdie was nearly assassinated by a knife-wielding attacker as he was about to discuss “the United States as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.” Chautauqua invited me to speak about my new book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, and the threat our country faces from a rising tide of Christian Nationalism, during this weeklong series of events that acknowledged the trauma of that assault and defied the attacker. (Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Rushdie and discuss the visceral repugnance we feel at book burning and book banning. He signed my first edition, first printing of The Satanic Verses. As a bibliophile, it’s one of my prized possessions.)
Senseless hate and rage
Early on the morning of my speech, I stood at the very spot where Rushdie was almost killed and contemplated the senseless hate and the rage that motivates such attacks.
“That vicious attack was an assault on the host of freedoms that Americans hold most dear: freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and church-state separation,” I told the audience later. “Our nation, from the beginning, was not a Christian nation, but one opposed to theocracy because it was committed to the freedom of thought. Criticism of religion is a basic human right. It’s the beginning of freedom. We cannot begin to live freely until we can think freely. And freedom of thought begins with questioning, critiquing, and criticizing the answers we are told from birth to accept without question.”
The rage and hate that underlies these attacks is all related, I explained: “The assassination attempt differs from the current political assaults on public education, public schools, teachers, public libraries and books only in its violence. If we wish for America to be an asylum for free expression, we need to defeat the rising Christian nationalism that threatens our public institutions.”
A dominant group feels threatened
When the dominant group or caste in society feels threatened or left behind by circumstances, it reacts – or overreacts – by seeking a way to retain that status. As I told the crowd, “This is why we’re seeing them turn to Christian Nationalism. To violent insurrection. That’s why they’re seeking this weaponized religious freedom. The erosion of the deference which they demand and which they wrongly believe they are due. They are raging against the dying of their privilege. And that rage can easily turn to violence. That is what happened on Jan. 6 – and it could easily happen again.”
At Americans United, we fight for “freedom without favor and equality without exception.” You’ve heard us say it a thousand times – but take a moment to ponder the words. The phrase is a clarion call and the very antithesis of Christian Nationalism, authoritarianism, and religious extremism.
It’s one reason I consider it an honor to be in this fight at this organization at this time.
(Photo by Jess Kszos/The Chautauquan Daily)