Our nation has a proud history of religious freedom and equality that started from the very founding of the country. Our Constitution never mentions a particular religion or even God, and specifically provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment to our Constitution forbade Congress from establishing a religion or from prohibiting individuals from freely exercising their religious beliefs. As a result of this freedom, religious belief has thrived, with the United States having the highest level of religiosity of any industrialized nation, and the greatest diversity of religious beliefs, including various strains of non-belief, of any country in the world.
Yet, throughout history, our principles of religious freedom and equality have been tested. In the 19th Century, the Know Nothing political movement was motivated largely by irrational fear of German and Irish Catholic immigrants. In the 1920s and 1930s, Father Coughlin became a major political figure in part on the basis of his anti-Semitic rantings. And today, major conservative political figures are trying to gin up votes and contributions by fanning the flames of intolerance against Muslim Americans. Touched off by months long opposition by politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to the proposed Muslim community center in a former Burlington Coat Factory in New York City, Muslim community centers and mosques throughout the country are experiencing a hateful backlash.
Given these developments, I was extremely proud today to hear President Obama offer a stirring defense of religious liberty and the importance of protecting the religious and other rights of our Muslim American brothers and sisters. President Obama’s statements on these issues can be listened to here and here. The key segment being:
The other reason it’s important for us to remember that is because we’ve got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?
I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal-clear for our sakes and their sakes they are Americans and we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us. It’s just us.
And that is a principle that I think is going to be very important for us to sustain. And I think tomorrow is an excellent time for us to reflect on that.
With the right-wing whipping up fears of Muslims and continuing their effort to portray our President as somehow not a “real” American, President Obama’s statement today may not have been smart politics. But it was the morally right thing for the President to do, and I am proud that the President came out and eloquently reaffirmed our nation’s great tradition of religious freedom and equality.
Nine years ago today, our country was attacked by radical terrorists who have put forth a bastardized version of Islam to attempt to justify their truly unjustifiable and morally reprehensible behavior. But terrorists win only if we let them – i.e., only if we abandon our moral principles and values in the name of fighting an enemy like Al-Qaeda. Instead of giving into the fear mongers here at home who want to take that route, let’s heed our President’s call and make sure that the U.S. continues to be a shining beacon of freedom, liberty, and equality to the rest of the world.
Do you support President Obama’s stirring defense of religious liberty and equality? If so, share your views with your neighbors by sending a letter to your local newspaper editor.