By Maggie Siddiqi
The 2016 election left me feeling hopeless. My Muslim community was highly vulnerable. Having spent over a decade of building interfaith relationships, I felt deflated that my fellow Americans did not care about such a dangerous outcome for my Muslim community. I posted angry messages on social media and told my interfaith allies that they should not have let this happen. I felt the Muslim community was on its own now. Sure enough, the Muslim Ban was enacted shortly thereafter.
But I could not have predicted what happened next. As soon as the Muslim Ban went into effect, people flooded the airports, sent in legal support, showered arriving Muslims with welcoming cheers and flowers, filed lawsuits in our court system, and got an immediate injunction that temporarily halted the ban. Make no mistake – the Muslim Ban is still fully in effect and was even upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States. But the immediate impact was profound. It made clear that, even after an election, our democracy was still fully at work, and none of us were alone. We are a nation of people who will, even against all odds, use every tool available to us within our democracy to make sure our nation upholds justice for all.
These were the democratic values of the Americans who protested against the Muslim Ban. Many of those Americans were Jewish. They certainly didn’t show up that day because it was convenient. And while I’d like to think it was because they were in deep relationship with immigrant Muslim communities, I don’t think that’s entirely true either. I believe Jews showed up for their Muslims neighbors because of their Jewish values.
People often say that faith and politics shouldn’t mix. The fact is, we do it every day. About 3 out of every 4 Americans identify as people of faith, and lest anyone start making assumptions – the percentages among Republicans and Democrats are roughly similar. Our faiths show up, just like every part of our identities, in all aspects of our lives, including our civic engagement. The values of our faith traditions are with us when we vote, when we go to the airports to protest a new government regulation, or when we advocate for new legislation to help our communities amid a pandemic.
I recently attended a convening on Judaism and American Democracy hosted by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. We discussed what it means to participate in democracy and how this relates to American Jewish experiences and values. During one session, the Benenson Strategy Group presented their insightful findings on the relationship between being Jewish and civic engagement. 89% of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “I engage, or would engage, in my community because it’s the right thing to do, not because I’m Jewish.” And yet, two-thirds agreed that being Jewish has either “some” or “a lot of influence on how and why I choose to participate in democracy and engage with my community.” The survey also found that those “who see a stronger connection between being Jewish and engaging in democracy and their communities are more likely to engage in more different forms of civic activity.”
In other words, the majority felt that their Jewish values led them to participate in American democracy, and yet that those particularly Jewish values were also universal values. I thought that was beautiful. In my work as director of the faith initiative at the Center for American Progress, we work to uplift the progressive values and voices of faith communities in discourse on public policy.
One challenge is that progressive people of faith – and the overwhelming majority of American Jews identify as progressive – often do not expressly articulate their participation in democracy in terms of their faith values.
We value pluralism as a central democratic value, and that comes with an understanding that while we are deeply proud of our faith traditions and the values that we derive from them, we also do not hold an exclusive claim to those values. We believe that all people are entitled to dignity, fairness, and respect and that we are collectively called to care for one another, to welcome the stranger, and to protect the earth in which we live. Those are deeply Jewish values, as they are specifically Muslim values, Christian values, Buddhist values, etc.; and they are also values we collectively share.
The religious right too often dominates discourse about faith and values, even though they are not representative of most religious Americans. Their engagement in the public square is often in order to enforce a hegemony of conservative white evangelicalism. These efforts are, naturally, to the detriment of other communities. Progressive faith movements, on the other hand, are incredibly diverse. They consist of many religious minorities, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who don’t fit into the religious right’s monoculture. By nature of the diversity among our communities, we tend to value pluralism and the importance of a functioning democracy in protecting all of our equal rights, so we are all safe no matter who is in charge.
But as long as those of us who are progressive people of faith do not express our deeply held values in terms of our faiths, we leave the door open for those who would seek to narrowly define what faith-based engagement in democracy looks like. And that agenda, I fear, is one that would ultimately threaten the separation of religion and state and would redefine religious freedom in a way that actually undermines the rights and safety of religious minorities and others.
It’s time to reclaim our democracy. It’s time to make sure that every American has equal rights under the law, and that our government works to protect us and unite us. In order to do that, we need to loudly proclaim our democratic values, and thoughtfully articulate why they are so central to all of us as Americans and to each of our communities.
For those of us who are people of faith, we must first recognize that our faith values are a driving force behind our engagement in civic life. This does not mean, of course, that we ought to inject the tenets of our faiths into American law, or otherwise erode at the separation of religion and state, but rather that we ought to be reflective about the ethical and wisdom traditions that underly our democratic participation. For example, why do we as progressives often expect political candidates to speak about, say, how having family members in the military informs their perspective on national security, but we seem shocked if they discuss how having a faith tradition that calls us to care for one another informs their perspective on the social safety net?
For those of us who are from minority faith communities, we must also share our communities’ experiences in order to better inform our democracy. Anti-Semitism is, after all, instrumental to white nationalist attempts to undermine democracy. American Jews have a lot of wisdom to offer about our American democracy, both in terms of the harms they experience when a democracy begins unraveling, and in terms of the wisdom that the Mishnah and other Jewish traditions can offer.
Last month’s gathering on Judaism and American Democracy brought me great hope. I’m inspired by the many individuals, communities, and institutions dedicated to bringing their wisdom and experiences to bear on our nation’s challenges in this moment. Not one of our communities is alone in its struggle, and we are all bringing our unique insights forward for a collective solution. I have faith in our democracy in 2020, and I am optimistic about our nation’s future in the years ahead.
Maggie Siddiqi is the director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. She leads the organization’s efforts to advance a progressive vision of faith and religious liberty, in coordination with a network of faith communities. Siddiqi is a certified Muslim chaplain and has over a decade of experience in faith community organizations, working to build interfaith coalitions and advance social and policy change.
This is the third piece in a four-part series reflecting on the Judaism and American Democracy Convening hosted by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.