The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. –James Madison, 1785
As we run headlong toward the nominational cliff that is Donald Trump, let’s pause a minute to think about what he’s saying. His recent comments on Muslim immigration present a good opportunity to begin such a contemplative practice.
Donald Trump advocates “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” He thinks this is a wise move, because “we have to be tough, and we have to be smart, and we have to be vigilant.”
Evidently, however, we don’t have to be American.
The Declaration of Independence boldly asserted a divine justification for the colonies to become their own independent nation. Fifty-six brave souls told the King that the “Supreme Judge of the world” gave them permission to break from him, to deny what had always before been considered his divine right of rulership and become something brand new: a free and independent people.
The Declaration says some interesting things about rights—such as that they belong to us, regardless of whether anyone lets us use them or not. They are “unalienable”. They are “endowed by Our Creator,” and among them are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is worthwhile to contemplate why this notion of personal liberty—and, in the present argument, specifically of religious liberty—would have been important to the colonists.
Although they had been on the continent for several centuries before the Declaration was written, it was not lost to the Founders how the settlements came to be—and from whence they came. Whether Spanish, French, British, or Dutch, every original settler came from a nation in which the absence of religious tolerance wreaked havoc for centuries.
From the time of the Protestant Reformation, Europe had been buttressed by rotating religious monarchies and Papal upheavals. Any religious person living in Europe at the time had a good chance of going to bed happy in one religion, and waking to find themselves under a new monarch, with a different religion—and now subject to persecution, exile, or execution. Converting didn’t help very much, because the situation could reverse just as quickly.
In the nations from which the colonists fled, practicing the wrong religion could easily get you killed.
During the colonial period, a new idea gradually emerged and spread: religious toleration. Although it was imperfectly practiced, the notion gradually began to take hold that a man’s conscience ought of right to belong only to him and God. Through the global religious revival of the 1700s known in America as the “Great Awakening,” faith became considered an intensely personal experience. By the time the Constitution was being written, religious freedom had become so important they mentioned it twice in the Bill of Rights.
It is important to remember that the Bill of Rights did not create rights. Rather, the Founders designed it to protect those inherent in humanity itself. In fact, the Federalists resisted creating such amendments, fearing that enumerating specific ones would cause the people to assume no others existed. However, chief among all the inalienable rights that the Constitution held inviolate was freedom of religion. Congress was to make “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In other words, the right to determine one’s own religion (not one forced on him)–and to practice it–is sacrosanct. The establishment clause was meant to prevent all the terrible things that had happened in Europe for hundreds of years because one religion or another was suddenly disfavored. In this new nation, no one would be exiled or executed because he sought to worship God differently from his neighbor. None would be favored because they shared the religion of the King (or, now, the government.)
Which brings us back to Trump and the Muslims.
Despite their individual distaste for the Mohametan (as they called it) religion, and despite being set upon by the Barbary Pirates just a few cosmic minutes after we became a nation, the Founders never contemplated making the Muslim religion illegal.
And it never should be.
To those who say they are not violating anyone’s rights because non-Americans aren’t covered by the Constitution, the Founders would fight you on that. Those “inalienable rights” did not inhere to them because they were Americans (the Declaration precedes the Constitution). They are not ours because of our position. They are ours because we are human beings.
And so are the Muslims.
Telling people they can’t come in solely because they are Muslim is akin to telling them we will not accept them because they choose to use one of their inalienable rights to practice a disallowed religion.
Moreover, once we have re-gifted the power to control conscience to the government, it will be hard to get it back—and as leaders change and culture continues to turn against the religion you practice, it is only a matter of time before you wake up one day without the right to live in your own country.
That’s not making America great again. That’s unmaking everything America is.