05/31/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Kansas, Empathy and Democracy

With all due respect to Maria, I am currently wondering: How do you solve a problem like Kansas? The first step appears to be to invent one.

Last week, the Kansas Legislature (by a 33-3 vote in the Senate and a 120-0 vote in the House) passed a ban restricting state courts, tribunals and administrative agencies from using foreign law or legal systems that are incompatible with the state or U.S. Constitution in any of their decisions or rulings. Legislators and citizens on both sides of the issue agree that the true motivation behind the law was to prevent sharia law -- a broad set of legal codes within the Islamic legal tradition -- from being used in Kansas courtrooms.

Obviously, Kansas lawmakers must be responding to actual cases or incidents in which judges blatantly disregarded the Constitution and instituted sharia.

However, in another instance of agreement on both sides, every one admits that, well, no, in fact, sharia has never been instituted, or even threatened to be instituted, by any court, clerk's office, revenue service, fish and wildlife bureau, or DMV office in the Sunflower State.

What then is the point of passing such a law? As Ibrahim Hooper, spokesmen for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, succinctly put it: "all it does is increase hostility toward Islam and suspicion of Muslims."

Now, I've poked fun at some of the legislators, but I do take them seriously in their intent to express anti-Islamic sentiment. As Senator Chris Steineger, a Republican from Kansas City, explained, the supporters of the bill sent around material to legislators "explain[ing] why sharia law is coming and Muslims are trying to take over America." With this bill, officials truly seem motivated by the wish to create fear about Muslim Americans. I believe the Kansas legislators should have used empathy instead of fear as the basis for their policy decisions.

Indeed, in a democracy, empathy should be a basic aspect of the public decision-making process. When I refer to empathy, I mean the ability to recognize and acknowledge the values of others. Empathy's requirements demand an attempt to understand your fellow woman or man. It does not require agreement, or enjoyment, or even liking another person. But it does require the use of our imaginative skills to see others as the valuable human beings they are and to extend beyond our own experiences in respect toward others.

I assume many of the legislators who voted for this bill were committed Christians with a deep reverence for Jesus Christ as their Savior. Their faith is undoubtedly central to their thoughts, values and actions. Gove. Sam Brownback has been one of the more open public figures in discussing the vital role his faith plays in his personal life, career and philosophy. Why then, would these same people pass a bill targeting another group of Kansans solely for their faith? The value of faith, like the value of equal voting rights or freedom of speech, is an enshrined value in our Constitution. Ignoring that value for others, while seemingly reserving it for yourself, displays a notable lack of empathy.

And, indeed, members of the Kansas state legislature are not the only people in our pluralistic democracy who ignore empathetic considerations. Many of my liberal and progressive friends are quick to call someone who disagrees with them with any type of faith-based justification a "fundamentalist," or "Bible-thumper," or worse. They feel like a label describes a person. But they rarely attempt to take the far more important step of actually understanding something about these people they are confidently quick to categorize. But dismissive labeling does little to further democratic debate and does nothing at all to create an understanding, based in empathy, for the values of others.

Again, empathy's role in a democracy like ours does not call for some mushy middle ground where we all have to agree with each other. That would be a failure of both pluralism's promise and democracy's demands. Instead, empathy should create a realm for vibrant debate based upon respect, not stereotypes and unfounded allegations. The problems that Kansas, and the whole of the United States, should be addressed by our democratic system, not caused by them. Under the law, we are all, no matter our faith or lack of it, equal citizens. Empathy helps us treat each other like ones.