By John Nichols
July 05, 2018
When President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore in 2016, he recalled that “Islam has always been a part of America.”
As Donald Trump struggles to dismantle Obama’s legacy, he is quick to challenge the basic premises of his predecessor’s tenure and thinking. But Trump cannot suggest that Obama’s rumination on Islam was “fake news.” Nor can Trump or his allies on a divided Supreme Court claim that there is anything “American” about establishing a separate set of rules for Islamic refugees that—no matter what label may be attached to it—“really is a Muslim ban.”
Islam is an American faith tradition with roots that can be traced back to before the events of July 4, 1776. Muslims arrived initially as explorers and as slaves, and later as farmers, factory workers, and small-business owners. The first freestanding mosques were constructed in the middle of the country, in North Dakota initially and then in Iowa. But long before the buildings went up, the faith was practiced by proud and patriotic Muslim Americans.
In this turbulent moment of Donald Trump’s creation, and of the high court’s surrender, we do well to recall the longer arc of history that extends from our nation’s founding. In so doing, we renew thr appreciation of religious pluralism that has always inspired the better angels of our nature.
Two hundred and forty-two years ago, Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots rejected colonialism and “the divine right of kings,” calling into being an American experiment that at its best embraced an enlightened view of not just tolerance but of respect for many religious traditions. That view was informed by the thinking of English philosopher John Locke, who James H. Hutson, the author of Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, reminds us “insisted that Muslims and all others who believed in God be tolerated in England.”
The founders were imperfect men—a fact that the best of their number acknowledged—yet they laid down markers that would be essential to the evolution of the experiment they initiated. Among these was a Locke-like regard for a wide diversity of faith traditions.
We know that Jefferson understood Islam as a part of this diversity. He had purchased his first copy of the Qur’an more than a decade before he penned the Declaration of Independence. A year after the proclamation of American independence, he authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, with its declaration that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” That document would do much to inspire the Constitution’s promise that “no religious test” would be used to divide Americans into favoured and unfavoured religious groupings.
Jefferson made his intentions clear enough. In his autobiography, the third president recalled the debates regarding the Virginia statute, writing that “where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ’ so that it should read, ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’ the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammadan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and infidel of every denomination.”
Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson’s great ally, made a similar point in remarks to the Continental Congress. Speaking a month before the Declaration of Independence was issued, he said: “True freedom, embraces the Mohammadan [Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”
These sentiments were not isolated at the founding moment. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was, according to one of its drafters, Theophilus Parsons, written with an eye toward insuring “the most ample of liberty of conscience [for] Deists, Muhammedans, Jews and Christians.”
Parsons, as the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, would emerge in the early 19th century as one of the great defenders of the principle that “no religious tests” should be applied. Writing of concerns that public offices might be won by followers of different religions than his own, Parsons expressed his hope that leaders would be believers. But, he argued, “it must remain with the electors to give the government this security.”
Another drafter of the Massachusetts Constitution was Jefferson’s great rival in the early days of the republic, John Adams, who also owned a copy of the Qur’an.
And What of Thomas Paine, the Finest Of the Founders?
Paine was no fan of organized religion. Yet, even in his criticisms of state religions, he recognized a diversity of traditions. “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit,” wrote Paine in The Age of Reason.
The founders were not always generous in their assessments of Islam. But, as Denise Spellberg, the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders explained in an interview several years ago, Muslims were mentioned at the founding of the American experiment to illustrate “how far tolerance and equal civil rights extends.”
“In the formation of the American ideal and principles of what we consider to be exceptional American values, Muslims were, at the beginning, the litmus test for whether the reach of American constitutional principles would include every believer, every kind, or not,” said Spellberg.
This able historian reminds us that “Muslims once again provide a litmus test for the civil rights of all U.S. believers.”
Presidents and Supreme Court justices may fail that test. But on this Fourth of July, those of us who seek to make real the full promise of the American experiment must recognize the truth of Spellberg’s observation that “Today, Muslims are fellow citizens, and their legal rights represent an American founding ideal increasingly besieged by fearmongering, precedents at odds with the best of our ideals of universal religious freedom.