As American Muslims find themselves at the center of a heated debate over religious freedom, it’s important to remember that our nation’s founders contemplated these very issues since before the creation of the United States.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So begins the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the American colonies regarded themselves as a new nation.
The new nation would struggle to make that proposition a reality for all, including African slaves, women, and other religious and ethnic minorities. In times of real or perceived danger, this proposition has been tested: In 1882, for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a sweeping prohibition on the immigration of Chinese workers, was passed in the wake of anti-Asian hysteria. In 1919 and the 1950s, the “red scare” caused many innocent Americans to be unfairly accused of being communist sympathizers. American Jews, Catholics, and Mormons faced decades of prejudice and often violence. After Pearl Harbor, over 120,000 Japanese-American citizens were forced from their homes and placed in camps.
Today, it’s the five to seven million Americans who happen to be Muslim who have been stereotyped and demonized. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for the registration of all Muslim Americans, the warrantless surveillance of all Muslim places of worship, and a ban on all Muslim travel and immigration, “They’re not coming to this country if I’m president,” he said this week in the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.
“We have a problem in this country: It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American…when can we get rid of ’em?” one of Trump’s supporters bellowed at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in September. Trump encouragingly nodded along: “We need this question,” he agreed, and promised that “we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
Such vitriolic sentiment stands in stark contrast to the unifying message of the most recent GOP occupant of the White House, President George W. Bush, in whose administration I was honored to serve for both terms. During the 2000 campaign for example, Bush praised the faith of Americans who regularly attended a “church, synagogue, or mosque,” met with Muslim American supporters across the country, and visited a prominent Islamic center in Michigan — the first major presidential candidate from either party to do so. The GOP convention in Philadelphia was the first in either national party’s history to feature a Muslim prayer. And after Muslim American community leaders expressed their civil liberties concerns regarding a provision of Clinton’s 1996 immigration enforcement legislation, Bush publicly promised to repeal the provision in the second presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore.
Bush’s inclusive efforts earned him the endorsement of eight major Muslim American organizations. By election day, more than 70 percent of the Muslim vote — including 46,200 ballots in just Florida — went in his favor. And after his 2001 swearing-in, Bush appointed a record number of Muslim Americans to senior positions in the White House and throughout his new administration.
Bush also remained steadfast in his inclusiveness after the 9/11 terror attacks. Just days after the tragedy, Bush visited an American mosque, the first and only sitting president to do so. He also reminded the world, “ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. … ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.” And when anti-Muslim rhetoric rose, Bush fired back, “Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”
Such heroic leadership seems a lifetime away. While other presidential hopefuls and elected officials from both sides of the political aisle, editorial boards, and even celebrities and sports figures have widely condemned Trump’s statements, it’s easy for the nation’s Muslims to feel singled out, particularly when poll after poll demonstrates increasing popular support for such anti-Muslim sentiment. (Muslim Americans, while perhaps small in their relative numbers, are growing in political influence. Their political organization is improving, they are increasingly generous financial contributors to campaign coffers, and they remain a key voting bloc in swing states such as Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.)
But even as Muslim Americans find themselves at the center of today’s heated political debate, it’s important to remind ourselves that Muslims have been a proud part of the American story from the very founding of our republic, and that the Founders contemplated the freedom for all — including Muslims — when they conceived our great nation over two centuries ago.
Historians estimate that a quarter to a third of the African slaves brought to the United States were Muslims. American Muslims, both slaves and freedmen, served in the American War of Independence and the War of 1812, and were a part of the impassioned debate about religious liberty from the very beginning of the nation’s founding.
Referred to as “Mahometans” and “Turks,” many of the founders referenced Muslims — along with Jews, Catholics, and others — as they hotly debated the limits of the freedom of worship. Thomas Jefferson, in authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, established the foundation for the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia, freeing Virginians from paying taxes to the church and guaranteeing freedom of religion to people of all faiths.
During the debate over the legislation, some Virginia legislators unsuccessfully sought to include a reference to Jesus Christ. Writing in 1821, Jefferson reflected that “the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of [the statute’s] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
While it’s unclear whether Jefferson knew any Muslims, we know that his opinions on religious freedom were heavily influenced by the philosopher John Locke who, in promoting religious freedom in England in 1689, expressed his belief that all citizens who believed in God — Jews, Catholics, and Muslims — should be protected. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, which was published in 1781. “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
James Madison, who would later become the fourth U.S. president, joined Jefferson in supporting religious liberty and assisted in supporting the final passage of the Virginia statute in 1786. Railing against religious taxes, Madison argued that the separation of church and state would actually promote Christianity as an open society would be welcoming to those “remaining under the dominion of false Religions.” Establishing an official church, he continued, “discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation.”
Another supporting Jefferson was Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress who made the June 7, 1776, motion that the American colonies declare independence. “True freedom,” Lee proclaimed, “embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”
These ideas about religious freedom that were nurtured in the American colonies were written into the Constitution after the United States won its independence. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was a notable precursor of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But the real debate surrounded the language banning religious tests as a qualification for public office, put forth in Article 6, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution. This clause, revolutionary at its time, provided that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” By including this clause, the founders proclaimed that men of all faiths, or none at all, would be equally eligible to play a role in public life in the new democratic nation.
The ban on religious tests was a major source of contention during the debates to ratify the new constitution. Madison wrote to Jefferson in 1788 that “one of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened a door for Jews, Turks & infidels.” Indeed, a delegate to Massachusetts’s ratifying convention warned that public office would be open for “a papist or an infidel.”
During North Carolina’s 1788 constitution ratification debate, anti-Federalist Henry Abbot argued that eliminating a religious test meant it would be possible that “pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans.” A South Carolina newspaper raised the possibility of Quakers taking over the fledgling government. One Virginian suggested that the delegates rewrite the clause banning religious tests to require officeholders to swear a belief in the “one only true God, who is rewarder of good, and the punisher of evil.”
Defenders of the ban rallied support for the clause. Baptist preacher John Leland, who had opposed religious tests successfully in Virginia, argued “If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia, let him worship one God, twenty Gods, or no God — be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”
And Federalist James Iredell, who subsequently was appointed as a Supreme Court justice, stood firm in his defense of the clause. “[It] is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices,” Iredell said. “But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?”
That same question, posed over two centuries ago, looms large over our debate today. The United States currently faces a determined enemy who makes no distinctions about our race, ethnicity, or religion — attacking us only because we are Americans. In response, some strident voices tragically seek to divide our nation on religious lines by casting suspicion on an entire faith group. Now more than ever, it’s important to remind ourselves that our great nation was founded on religious freedom for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion.
Muslim Americans are our neighbors, or friends; they are doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, first responders, and nearly 6,000 serve in uniform in our Armed Services. Many have given, as President Abraham Lincoln stated, “the last full measure of devotion.” In this time of real danger, let’s not allow our zeal to defend our ideals destroy them.
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