From the Panel

Wearing Your Faith on Your Sleeve

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about an aspect of religion. This week's question: President Obama recently criticized a French law that prohibits Muslim girls and women from wearing body- and face-covering garments in public schools. "It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit," Obama said in Cairo, "for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear."

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week gave his support to attempts to bar Muslim women from wearing veils such as the burqa. "The burqa is not a religious sign," Sarkozy said. "It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."

What's your view? Is this a private religious matter or a public/government one? Is the burqa welcome in America?

In America, some women like to dress in provocative, flesh-baring clothes. Many feminists would say that this sartorial choice reflects low self-esteem and perpetuates an imbalance between the sexes. Yet we don't legislate against it. Fashion models, like the one to whom Mr. Sarkozy is married, pose in magazine spreads showing bodies that are inhumanly thin and inhumanly blemish-free -- and yet no one would legislate against scantily clothed fashion models on the basis that they debase womankind by holding up something completely unattainable as an example.

From the outside, all religious garb can appear eccentric, and deciding which religions are the worst offenders is not a game in which a democratic government should engage. Hasidic Jews dress in black suits and hats even in the hottest months of the summer. Some observers would say that this reflects a lack of common sense, a subverting of pragmatism in favor of ideology. Some Sikhs wear turbans, some Roman Catholic nuns wear habits, most devout Mormons wear sacred underwear. A secularist would say that all these choices reflect a triumph of religious hegemony over rationality, yet in a free country citizens are allowed to wear what they want.

-- Lisa Miller, senior editor, Newsweek

The United States has done very well in letting people wear clothing that reflects their religious commitment. Americans are used to seeing fellow Americans wearing yarmulkes or crosses or headscarves or turbans and even burqas. The more we become a religiously diverse nation, the more such clothing is appearing in public and the more Americans are becoming used to it.

Religious pluralism is just that -- a way for a society to cultivate acceptance of different faiths. The American Constitution shows the way. No religion is established (officially supported) over any other. Being a person of faith, or a person of no faith, is of absolutely no concern to your government. Leave it alone. We're doing fine. The burqa is as welcome in America as my cross or my clerical collar.

-- Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor, Chicago Theological Seminary

To read the complete essays and more "On Faith" commentary, hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, go to

© 2009 The Washington Post Company