As an American in Europe for more than fifteen years, I have a pretty clear idea of what makes America great and where we could also use some improvement. Contrast this month’s decision by the EU Court of Justice to permit employers to discriminate against employees based on religious practice to the U.S. courts’ repeated decisions to overrule or stay the sitting president’s orders to bar entry to nationals from six Muslim countries. And I am reminded of what I love about my country.
According the EU Court of Justice,
An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” the court said in a statement.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of the right to freedom of expression, association and religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and guaranteed to Americans by more than two hundred years of legislation and jurisprudence. Europe has never experienced anything similar to our anti-discrimination laws, Civil Rights Movement, or other social movements to make the “the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of our Declaration of Independence available to all. Looking at the European court’s ruling with the eyes of an American lawyer, the Europeans have in fact perfectly defined and then legalized direct discrimination.
If you’re not convinced about the difference, read the rules prohibiting religious discrimination in the American workplace, including “religious garb”. Or read the judge’s decision on the second Trump travel ban:
According to Plaintiffs, the Executive order also results in “their having to live in a country and in a State where there is the perception that the Government has established a disfavored religion”
But isn’t that the real difference between how Americans and European define themselves? A large part of the American self-image is based on living in a society that does not promote or prohibit religion; in theory thus allowing for new entrants to compete for the American Dream based on economic ambition, rather than pure cosmetic and ethno-cultural assimilation. Of course in practice the reality has been less than optimal, but at least as a society we are able to aspire to the principles of our founding, and with the help of lawyers and activists, improve step by step. Where were the religious freedom activists when the EU Court of Justice gave its ruling? Meanwhile, there were scores of pro bono lawyers camping out at airports around the country when Trump passed his first ban.
On the other hand, Europeans have a lot of trouble figuring out what it means to be European other than simply being from Europe. So Europeans expect you as the new entrant to become just like them. To eat, dress, and talk like they do. In fact the biggest compliment a European can give you is “you are just like one of us”. Almost every single day of the week when I go to lunch an hour earlier than my colleagues here in Spain, I always get a comment about how strange I am for eating at 12:30, instead of at 2:00pm. Or for eating just a sandwich instead of a hot meal.
It’s no doubt that after having cleansed themselves of practically all non-Christians in the 20th Century, Europeans find any other form of religious expression, foreign and confrontational. No one finds it strange that women have to wear a veil when meeting the Pope at the Vatican, but could never understand why a woman would voluntarily wear a Muslim veil, unless under male duress.
They also forget that European women wore scarves well into the last century. In Madrid, for example, on the feast day of their patron Saint Isdro, local women and little girls were the traditional Chulapa dress and headscarf. And in my old neighborhood of Chamberí, if you saw a woman dressed like she was from Saudi Arabia, she was usually a Catholic nun (and teaching at a publicly subsidized charter school).
From an American perspective, having grown up in a multicultural town where my next door neighbors were Jewish, Iranian, Hindu, Black, Mormon, Nicaraguan, and Korean, there was nothing strange about having, for example, a Jewish or Sik boy sitting next to me on the yellow public school bus wearing a kippah or turban respectively or seeing my friend’s mother get the mail dressed in a sari. As long as you bought into the fiction of the American dream (hard work and meritocracy), you could be whatever religion you wanted.
While I enjoy some of the significantly more civilized and advanced aspects of European life (few guns, low crime, free universal health care, generous vacation and paid maternity/paternity leave), when I read about the EU court permitting religious discrimination in the workplace by the same Je Suis Charlie hypocrites, I dearly miss my First Amendment right to be both free from religion and free to be openly religious.
But it’s not just the Bill of Rights. As my former boss and now president of George Mason University, Angel Cabrera, wrote yesterday in the Washington Post,
American innovation has been the envy of the world for the last century. Our ability to discover scientific breakthroughs, invent disruptive technologies and build successful companies that make those advances broadly available has been unparalleled. This creativity is the product of a culture that is uniquely open to new ideas, that encourages and rewards risk taking, that values people for what they achieve, not where they come from. It is also the result of a constant supply of talented people from outside the United States, many of whom came to this country seeking world-class education and an open society where they could thrive.
America is more than just my rights story. It’s a global brand with its can-do outlook. It’s about being solution-driven, making things happen, and moving forward. It’s about striving to be the best. But, people around the world don’t buy the American flag t-shirt or beach towel because they think it stands for “America First” or you are not welcome or trusted here. For that, they could have worn a different flag on their outfit.
Of all people, Mr. Trump of the Trump brand empire should understand that his words, travel bans, walls and nativism will have a major effect on the American brand.
So it is to Trump and Trumpsters that I ask: when you talk about “making America great again” what exactly is it that made us great in the first place? And when the rest of the world looks at USA® what is that you want them to buy into?