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As every grade school student would remind us, the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States specifically prohibits Congress from making law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. Our founders just didn't believe that government should meddle with the personal beliefs or practices of men and women when it comes to prayer and God.

There are two ideas that are innate in this: truth does not reside in a single faith. And, diversity is our strength as a nation. No group was to be favored and no group was singled out or denied these protections. The language is clear. The right is absolute. In a sense, freedom of conscience is the essence of liberty.

Yet, as every grade school student also knows, the promise of American freedom has not matched its practice. Our history is filled with stories of persecution against Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, among many others. But this is not simply a matter of history. It is our present. We have not risen above bitterness. We have not grasped the true meaning of our American experiment.

Religious profiling today reaches across the political spectrum from left to right. It has inflamed the secular and the faithful. Here, stereotypes of religious identity become the measure of men and women. Judgment is rushed and formed on the basis of group identity. Labels trump personal integrity and character.

Not long ago, we witnessed the serial burning of African American churches. From university campuses today come reports of a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents that target and intimidate Jewish students. The mere mention of Islam conjures up fear of terrorism and the decline of American civilization. We even tolerate calls to deny individuals safe haven based solely on their religious identity.

These are not only national matters. In our own community, we practice a tribalism based on religion. Individuals look inward, cling to their faith traditions, seeking safety from those who believe differently. Our sporting events have become contested sites that vent or inflame religious animosities. We live in coded, self-segregating worlds even as we pledge allegiance as united Americans. We have forgotten the principles that make us strong.

Our concern today is not federal infringement on religious freedom. Rather the enemy is within us. This is not a matter of political correctness. It is about who we are as a people. We must re-energize the power of our mosaic, where different pieces join to make the whole.

Our religious leaders must play a prime role in this. They hold the confidence of their congregants and have means to nurture change. They have relationships outside of their own faiths that can build mutual tolerance and respect. They have the ability to connect to secular groups and enhance sensitivity for all perspectives. And, they have already constructed an interfaith infrastructure to reach out beyond religious organizations.

Perhaps our community can role model a new Americanism based upon not only the Constitution but also compassion.

Robert A. Goldberg is a professor of history and director of the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah.