Reducing any major movement to a simplistic cause is always problematic. But we can certainly appreciate that one of the foundational premises for the departure of a significant portion of the early colonists from England to the New World was to escape religious persecution. England was operated by a strong-armed state religion, headed by the King, and the persecuted saw hope for escape from that tyranny, and thus took up a dangerous voyage across the ocean to an unknown land.
In no place was this emphasis on religious freedom more apparent than in Pennsylvania, named after one of the greatest proponents of religious tolerance and freedom in history, William Penn. He was the counter-example to American Puritans, and with the charter he purchased for this new colony, he established such unheard of freedoms that are now enshrined not only in the American Constitution, but in the very fiber of our national soul: freedom of the press, the right to a trial by jury, free operation of business, and freedom of religion. Penn believed in the free exchange of ideas, where political dissent was to be encouraged, recognizing that this free exchange, rather than weakening a society, only strengthened it. People need not agree, but when they operate in a spirit of freedom and openness, a society moves towards a truer ideal of justice and peace, and of an authentic expression of communal values.
So successful was this experience of freedom that it did not take long for Philadelphia to become recognized as the epicenter of the new American experiment. Immigrants in particular flooded to Pennsylvania, and especially to Philadelphia. Germans, Irish, English, Jews, Catholics, Protestants of all denominations, all flooded to this great capitol of freedom, and the effect of such cultural diversity can still be felt in this great city today. This isn’t to say that everything was peaceful. Precisely because Philadelphia was such a harbor of religious and cultural diversity, and human nature being as it is, there were great struggles and sometimes violent conflicts.
Despite these struggles, throughout our history – our messy, complicated, sometimes bloody history, a history where at times we have revolted against our own core values – religious tolerance and freedom of expression have been at the very core of who we are. It is a freedom exalted in our founding documents, cherished and held dear by our Founding Fathers, and ultimately codified in the First Amendment of our most sacred of texts, the Bill of Rights, those ten amendments enshrining the values and rights that our nation holds most dear. If ever there were a mission statement to the American experiment, the Bill of Rights is it.
In so many instances when the American people have sacrificed our core value of religious freedom and tolerance, it has been in response to some fear, whether perceived or real – or perhaps a combination of the two. It has also often been linked to an anti-immigrant strain, which was certainly the case of the Nativist Riots to some extent (anti-Catholic bigotry in the United States has always been a mixture of anti-papist and anti-immigrant fears). This immigrant nation has frankly never been particularly fond of immigrants. Any suggestion that our latest anti-immigrant fears are new is a betrayal of historical fact.
All of this is important because today we once again face a fearful instinct that is rooted in a threat that is both perceived and real, that includes at least some element of our historical anti-immigrant strain, but that also, as fear so often does, threatens our democracy with a pathological separation from reason.
First, an essential point: the attacks on Paris last night were gruesome and horrific, and they must be named for what they are: they were an aggressive act of an ongoing war committed by jihadist Islamic terrorists. The biggest mistake that liberals like President Obama make is refusing to name our enemy for what it is. Without naming the enemy we can never hope to truly understand it. President Obama and the liberals who follow him are turning Islamic terrorism into some sort of Voldemortian enemy that must never be named, and in so doing they give the enemy gross power over us. Without properly naming this enemy, we cannot hope to understand its intentions, its motives, and without knowing our enemy, we can never hope to defeat them. We violate one of the oldest precepts of military strategy, “Know thy enemy.” The Islamic terrorist enemy we face today embraces a radical ideology that seeks the restoration of the caliphate (in the case of ISIS), or at the very least the military and political dominance of radical Islam subjugating the entire world to its twisted ideology (in the case of both ISIS and al Qaeda). So denying that there is a religious element, an Islamic element, to this enemy is not only foolish, it is precisely the sort of willful ignorance that allows our enemy to thrive.
Unfortunately, too many of my fellow conservatives take an equally extremist and reactionary position, and seek not just to destroy radical Islamic terrorism, but indeed willingly denounce our own American values and seek to eliminate Islam entirely. Perhaps not by military force, but certainly by propagating a viciously ignorant view of a complex and far from monolithic world religion. Some at least are honest and express the desire to eradicate Islam (and thus Muslims) from the world – not that promoting genocide is ever comforting, but I’d rather face the enemy I can see than the enemy in hiding. But others express hateful and anti-American views that, while vicious, stop just short of actually calling for violence. But they foment such fear, such hatred, such bigotry, that the violence already exists in the heart, and once murder is committed in the heart, it is only a matter of time before it spills over into the physical world.
The irony of this violent hatred is that it spews from the lips of those who call themselves patriots, constitutionalists, lovers of the Founding Fathers, who seek to “restore” America to our original values. Yet blocking the building of mosques, calling a Muslim unfit for American office just by virtue of their religious affiliation, suggesting that an entire religion should be made illegal, this is a complete abandonment of constitutional principles and a violation of not only the spirit but indeed the very words of our Founding Fathers.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t just fight abstractly for the rights of all religions. He specifically fought for protections of Muslims. Well aware of the still-recent history of violence between Muslims and Christians, fighting against an impulse by many early Americans to deny citizenship to Muslims, Thomas Jefferson in 1776, quoting Thomas Paine, wrote, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Emphasis mine.
Safety and security are among the most primal of human impulses. I don’t know if the world is actually more chaotic and violent than in previous times, but certainly the proliferation of social media and 24-hour news networks means that the human mind is made aware of the chaos and violence in a way that creates the perception of such a state. It is also true that the ubiquity of social media makes it easier to propagate hatred and foster fear. We must resist this temptation, for the good of our democracy, in fidelity to our Constitution and to our principles of freedom and religious liberty.
Times like those we live in today present us with choices that will define our history. We live in a fallen world, and vice and virtue are in constant battle within each of us. Undoubtedly, we must name our enemy, and we must bring the fight to the terrorists and destroy the radical Islamic jihadists who threaten us. But while fighting that fight, we must also name the enemy of our own hatred and fear, and we must fight against it so that we are not destroyed from within. As Christ himself has said, “Do not fear that which can kill the body, but rather that which can destroy the soul.” A reactionary hatred and an ignorant violence against Islam as an entire religion and against Muslims as a group of people, this is the hatred that destroys men’s souls. This too is the enemy we must destroy.