By Darnell Dickson Daily Herald
As it has throughout the history of the United States, religion and religious freedom can play a key role in uniting its citizens during a crisis — or in this day and age, the triple threat of the coronavirus, economic issues and racial tensions that are at the forefront of our nation’s consciousness.
Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) addressed this topic, as well as how the coronavirus has affected bipartisanship in government, during Thursday’s session of the Religious Freedom Annual Review at BYU.
The title of the one-hour discussion was “Religion’s Roles in Uniting America and Addressing the Crisis,” which was moderated by Brett Scharffs, BYU’s director of International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
“One of the things that bind us together as a nation as it pertains to things like religious freedom is we are a nation of heretics,” Sen. Lee said. “We’ve always been heretics. We are a nation that was founded by people breaking away from old ways of worshiping. Over time, our nation has welcomed in people who worship differently or not at all.”
Lee said religion and families can both play a big role in helping the nation heal social issues that divide us.
“The basis of most religious beliefs around the world is the morality of how you treat others and react to others who have been treated poorly,” Lee said. “The family is the fundamental unit of society because it is the natural condition where people exist. The first level is family, the second level is institutions and faith communities and then there is the government. If any one of those doesn’t function properly, the other two will have a problem.”
Sinema said religious leaders have a responsibility to work together to find solutions.
“This is a road our country has been struggling on for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she said. “Faith leaders are speaking out to recognize that Black Lives Matter and that white communities have a responsibility and role to play in recognizing their own white privilege and how that white privilege has blocked access to minorities.
“Faith leaders can help us with growing recognition on the part of non-black people in this country that there has been systemic discrimination and prejudice against black people, not because of who they are or what they do but because of the color of their skin. We have a collective responsibility as humans to examine our system of government and try to figure out what has gone wrong.”
Both senators said the coronavirus has affected the way they have gone about their jobs in the Senate, making bipartisan compromise a little harder.
“For six weeks we weren’t in session, so we couldn’t legislate or interact,” Lee said. “There are some challenges now that come from social distancing. On the Senate floor before the pandemic hit, there were practices we refer to as ‘scrums’ where we talk in groups. The magic that happens in scrums forges bipartisan compromise. Now we’re wearing masks and not standing next to each other.”
“You go to these scrums to build relationships with colleagues,” Sinema added. “When you develop personal, meaningful friendships you get much further down the road to a solution. One of the problems we have today is that the media covers the partisan story and doesn’t cover the bipartisan story. A train wreck is something that attracts public attention. Part of the responsibility lies with the media and part of the responsibility lies with us as Americans to give the right kinds of stories more attention.”
Sinema said finding the ability to cooperate and discuss shared values gives access to those who have never had that privilege.
“I think the challenge we’ve seen is not that our values aren’t good, it’s that they haven’t been shared equitably for everybody,” Sinema said. “That’s the key, because if you believe in equality and freedom for all, you have to literally mean that for all. In the midst of the movement for Black Lives Matter, we find out that everyone hasn’t gotten access to the shared benefits.”
Both senators agreed that the executive branch of government has been ceded too much responsibility and created an imbalance in the system that was created by our forefathers.
“What I would recommend to the president is to approach all of these crises from a place of compassion, empathy and humility,” Sinema said. “It’s OK to not know the answer of what comes next. Nobody knows. What’s important is to go on this journey together to discover what comes next. I would also ask him to forget about the election in November a little bit. The challenges we are facing now are unprecedented. Trust that the election will take care of itself and engage in authentic discussions on how to move forward.”
The conference, which is being held entirely online, concludes on Friday.