08/07/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

We Are All Sikhs Now

Once a month during the summer, my church meets on Sunday evening instead of Sunday morning. We do it so that folks who have been away for the weekend can plan on stopping by on their way home, join the community for worship, and then hang around for a meal we offer right after church.

This past Sunday, as we gathered for evening worship, it didn't take long before we realized it: We were doing exactly the same thing the Sikh community in Oak Creek had been doing just six hours before.

We were gathered for a worship service. Some folks had come early to prepare for a community meal afterward. The doors, all of them, were wide open. And all we wanted to do was to spend time with other people who share our faith and our desire to try to live it better.

We don't know yet why Wade Michael Page took a gun to the Oak Creek gurdwara to kill members of the Sikh community who were his neighbors and fellow-citizens. We do know that he was part of a white-supremacist subculture that deals in the commerce of ethnic, racial and religious hate. Even dignifying these ideas as a "motive" seems contemptible.

And we don't know why the mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground this week -- little more than a month after another fire, now classified as arson, damaged the worship center for Southwest Missouri's Muslim community.

Of course we cannot lose sight of the basic fact that these innocent people were targeted because they were, at least in someone's view, "different." They were from a different place, speak a different language, believe in a different god, dress in different clothes.

So the fact that the Wisconsin attack may have been perpetrated because of a case of mistaken identity -- consider the well-documented pattern of violence against Sikhs in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, brilliantly summarized in Valerie Kaur's documentary "Divided We Fall" -- doesn't mitigate the horror of this attacks in the least.

After all, it's not as if such an act of violence would somehow be any less reprehensible if it had been conducted against a mosque or a Hindu temple or a synagogue.

But there is something even deeper here -- something that makes all people of faith stakeholders in the conversation that we must now have about religious tolerance and the meaning of "freedom" when the subject is the exercise of religious belief. Because the attack in Wisconsin was more than an act of violence against a specific religious community or ethnic group; it was an attack against the very idea of tolerance in matters of ultimate meaning.

The founders structured protections for matters of conscience and belief in specific -- and sometimes problematic -- ways. The Constitution does not speak to what we believe, but how we express what we believe; it stipulates that laws cannot be fashioned that "prohibit the free exercise" of religious conviction.

This measured statement did not come from a group of political theorists who looked ahead two centuries and saw a nation of expanding religious and spiritual diversity. They were not looking forward, but backward. And when they did, they saw, all too clearly, the consequences that would arise in a democratic nation from a government that picked winners and losers in matters of faith.

They understood with great clarity the violence that had resulted when the culture of a nation became engulfed in a struggle over whether one faith should have dominance over all others -- and, if so, which one. And they probably remembered that the last person burned at the stake for heresy in England had been killed in 1612 -- just as close to them as the Civil War is to us, and just eight years before a group of people seeking the freedom to exercise the faith they had come to know landed at Plymouth, Mass.

The freedom of religious exercise the founders crafted as a cornerstone of the republic was not designed to enshrine Christianity, or any other religious tradition, as the moral measuring rod of our democratic government. Instead, the ethical virtue it was meant to encourage and strengthen is the idea of tolerance itself -- exactly the defense the founders thought would best defend a growing nation against the violence that too often attends disagreement over matters of conscience.

In the years since the founding our understanding of the free exercise of religious conviction has been extended into areas the founders would not likely have imagined -- to labor law, to family relations and the duties of parents, and most recently to the question of whether a church that is also a large employer can argue that its convictions exempt it from providing its employees insurance coverage for contraception.

These are questions of varying complexity, and they make clear that the freedom of religious exercise is not an absolute trump card over legal restrictions; if it were, virtually any kind of felonious conduct could be shielded by a claim of religious freedom.

But they also tend to distract us from the basic purpose of the way religious freedom was designed in the Bill of Rights. That purpose is to impose on all citizens the duty to regard the beliefs of all other citizens with tolerance, and to accord them equal respect. We don't have to accept without inspection anyone else's claims of conscience; but we do have to accord to them, and to anyone, the right to pursue the dictates of their conscience. That is the virtue of tolerance to which we are all equally called.

It is not surprising that Satwant Singh Kalkeka, the president of the Oak Creek gurdwara, had a home in the community distinguished by a large American flag. He, perhaps better than most of us, treasured that virtue -- and lived up to its standard.

So all of us, at least all of us who seek to follow the call of our own faiths, are Sikhs today. All of us who want the right to pursue our own faith are threatened by acts of intolerance against any faith. All of us who understand just how fragile harmony is in a religiously diverse nation -- and how serious is the responsibility we all share for living out the tolerance central to the founders' vision for the America they were creating. All of us stand with the Sikh community, both in their mourning and in their vulnerability.