— This article by Jerry Cates, was published on 09 December 2015, and last revised on 25 December 2015. © Govinthenews Vol. 6:12(1).
America, the world’s melting pot, is mired in the midst of what appears to be a confusing and difficult problem of monumental proportions. We, a nation founded to provide a safe haven for those unfairly persecuted and discriminated against in other lands, stand accused of wanting to deny that safe haven to certain refugees and would-be immigrants simply because of their religious faith, specifically the faith of Islam.
Religious freedom has been, from the very beginning, our touchstone. Now those who want to place a temporary moratorium on admitting muslim refugees are being labeled as bigots, with mindsets reminiscent of McCarthyism and Naziism. Are those who propose that muslims be denied entry to our country — even if only for a short period while we figure out how best to “safely” deal with them — providing evidence to the world that we have lost our way and no longer adhere to the principles on which our nation was founded?
The original colonies in North America were not without religious strife, despite being populated with colonists who came here to escape religious persecution elsewhere. Between 1647 and 1693, in the colony of Massachusetts, at least 32 individuals — all tried and convicted of witchcraft in the duly constituted courts of the land — were put to death, mostly by hanging.
Those executions, part of what is generally know as the Salem witch trials, figure in one of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria in history. Scholars see in them examples of the dangers that come from religious isolationism and extremism, the risks that rise from honoring false accusations, and the consequences that result when due process fails to work as it should.
Many question if the fears Americans feel, of mass murders on American soil at the hands of radical Islamists, aren’t themselves modern examples of mass hysteria. Are we, like the commoners of 17th century Massachusetts, victims of isolationism and extremism of our own making? If so, will we use that hysteria to set aside one or more of America’s most cherished rights, by mistreating innocent adherents of Islam, and refusing them the due process to which they are entitled?
Should that be the case, we will stand guilty of reversing more than two centuries of religious tolerance. We will, in effect, have gone backward, in the direction of the colonial injustices just mentioned, all to our great shame. Though another century would pass before the United States came into being, the Salem witch trials had an indelible influence on the way our nation was formed, and how our laws were crafted. As George Lincoln Burr pointed out, “the Salem witchcraft (trials were) the rock on which the theocracy shattered.”
So, as a nation being born, we both honored religious diversity and refused to allow our government to assume a religious character. We did so partly, if not mainly, because we so abhorred what religious intemperance had wrought earlier in Massachusetts. We call it separation of church and state, but we meant that to also reflect the same separation of temple and state, and of mosque and state.
It is incumbent, therefore, on us to ask if parallels can be found between those horrendous events in 17th century colonial America and the present push for discrimination against muslims. Where similarities exist, they must be eradicated.
We are not facing questions of this nature for the first time. Great Britain faced them in the 17th century. There John Locke, known today as the Father of Classical Liberalism, was moved by the debates of the time, and influenced by Baptist theologians like Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, whose tracts — published in the early 17th century — demanded freedom of conscience for all. Freedom of conscience… what does that mean?
Freedom of Conscience: The right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality. Source: Oxford Dictionary of the English Language.
That sounds simple enough, but it bears elucidation. Freedom of conscience is a practical concept only so long as it remains within the realm of Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Freedom of Thought and Expression: The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all. The human right articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elaborated elsewhere is and should be a single right, indivisible, protecting the dignity and freedom of all people by protecting their right to their personal beliefs, whatever those beliefs, religious or non-religious. As Article 7 of the Declaration says, ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.’ Source: Oxford Declaration of Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Humanity has come a long way since earliest days of human history. Though we face much strife and disharmony in the world, we continue to stride forward in the direction of more freedom and liberty. The above statement, and the remaining text in the declaration from which it was excerpted, prove that point. That it was even necessary to make such a declaration as late as 2014 shows, however, the glacial pace at which such concepts sink into, and maintain their places within, the human psyche.
Why is this so? First, it isn’t new. Every generation since time immemorial has failed somewhat in passing on to the next what it has learned in the present. Part of the blame (if we must point fingers) lies with human nature itself. We can’t learn well what we haven’t experienced. Just hearing the truth isn’t usually enough to make it sink in. Yet, while being hammered by real life experiences forces the point home, not everyone can or should be required to suffer all the slings and arrows of adversity as a prerequisite to understanding.
That facet of human nature may have no solution beyond dooming successive generations to continually repeat the mistakes of their forefathers. Then, when a major fraction of the population suffers the consequences, some bright historian drags up the past to show — once more — how we humans have screwed things up the same way before, and how we fixed it then. Much of the time the fix is the same as before, once in a while we introduce improvements, and sometimes we just screw it up worse before coming to our senses. In the end, though, we do the right thing. That’s the nature of human progress.
Today we face another problem of particular concern: Information overload. Sure, we’ve had this problem before, but never quite like this. As never before in human history all of us, not only our youths, are bombarded with tons of factoids masquerading as facts. Absent real-life experiences it takes more effort than seems worth the trouble to separate truth from fiction, and — as might be expected — much more fiction is being bandied about, and influencing our minds, than truth.
The only defense against the constant bombardment of information overload is experience, and only those who have lived in the trenches have that on their side. That comes with age, and with adversity. Many Americans have lived relatively cushy lives, and have a limited frame of reference within which to comprehend what adversity means. The threat of muslim extremism is either something to be ignored or a call to awaken. Too many, today, take the first path, simply because it is still possible to ignore reality without suffering serious consequences, but if history is our guide, we will soon all be forced to wake up. Not that many decades ago practically everyone was forced to face reality, because ignoring it wasn’t an option.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, was drafted after WW-II to clarify to the world how humans should behave toward one another. It, too, merely restated what other documents had set forth much earlier, including many written by Locke.
In 1689, Locke penned A Letter Concerning Toleration, addressing it to his friend, Phillipp van Limborch. In this letter his central object was to draw a dichotomy between civil government and religion. Government, to Locke, owed its existence to our need to systematize our external, temporal interests of life, liberty, and our general welfare. Religion, on the other hand, existed to deal with our internal, and specifically our eternal interests, such as salvation. Thus, inasmuch as these two institutions serve unique and different interests, they cannot, and should not, be combined.
In his letter to van Limborch, Locke insisted that while different, both government and religion must be held to high standards. Among the most important of these was tolerance, but in no instance was toleration to be forced upon either institution unilaterally. For toleration to be granted certain conditions must be met. For example, to Locke, only churches that teach toleration should be, themselves, tolerated in society. For him, the relationship had to be quid pro quo, i.e., a fair exchange. With specific regard to the Roman Catholic Church Locke was unequivocal: it could not be tolerated, because “all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.” Yet, though he found Roman Catholicism intolerable on political grounds, he simultaneously believed that the religious worship and beliefs of Roman Catholics, and by extension the institution of Roman Catholicism itself, deserved to be tolerated.
It is evident, from the tenor of Locke’s assertions, that he was struggling with problems of special importance to the philosophers of his day. Though he did not arrive at a universal conclusion to those concerns, his efforts laid a firm foundation upon which others could build.
A century later, America’s Founding Fathers faced a similar, if not identical conundrum. Through thoughtful, sometimes spirited, contentious debate, they arrived at a consensus. There would be no religious tests for our elected officials or for those allowed onto our land, they declared.
As Denise Spellberg — associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas in Austin — explains in her 2013 book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, this prohibition extends specifically to all religions. Spellberg acknowledges that Jefferson had a personal disdain for the Islamic faith, but that did not stop him from conducting an in-depth study of the Qur’an and the differences between Islamic law and English common law. Unlike many of his Protestant contemporaries, he arrived at the conclusion that Muslims had the same rights of citizenship as anyone. To Jefferson, America must admit not just those denominations that had splintered the Christian faith, but must also admit Jews, Hindus, and Muslims alike. No person could be discriminated against solely because they practiced a particular religion.
Thomas Jefferson was at the forefront of the movement — within our then-nascent government — to ensure religious toleration for all. The basis for his view on this can be summed in a famous passage he wrote in 1785, provided the context is preserved. Most scholars who reference that passage (the second of the two portions of core text that are underlined and darkened for emphasis in what follows, below), do so without quoting the text immediately preceding and following it. That contextual material, however, is crucial to establishing the tone of Jefferson’s argument. Despite bearing heavily on the meaning of the second, the first core text in what follows is almost never quoted with it:
“This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom. The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.” Thomas Jefferson, 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII, p. 176.
A succinct interpretation of Jefferson’s view tells us that any religion should be welcomed in our midst, so long as it injures no one. Anyone, of any faith whatsoever, may enter this land and become an American, provided they subscribe to and practice the tenets of American citizenship, including in particular the acceptance of others, whose faiths differ from theirs, without discrimination.
Jefferson’s view was not shared by all of America’s founders. Strong voices expressed concerns that Christianity was not placed ahead of other religions. Yet, such concerns could not be sustained under scrutiny. The Christian faith had splintered into a host of competing, even warring, denominations, and many Americans refused to claim loyalty to any of them. Agnostics, atheists, Unitarians, Jews, and adherents to other non-Christian religious faiths were counted among the colonists. How could America give special favor to Christianity and still claim to honor its central theme, of liberty and freedom to all? The simple answer is that it could not. And so, it did not. Despite grumbling from a few, Jefferson’s view held sway. Nothing else made sense.
In many ways, Jefferson echoed the views expressed by Locke, but he went further, by prescribing a somewhat precise way to distinguish between tolerable and intolerable beliefs. The operations of the mind (i.e., beliefs that are thought out and written down, but not necessarily put into action), are not equivalent to the acts of the body (beliefs put into action, i.e., actually carried out). By implication, operations solely of the mind that do not result in actions of the body are not subject to coercion of law, as they should have no impact on others. By way of contrast, all acts of the body, specifically intended to cause actual harm to others, are subject to the coercion of law.
It was Jefferson’s wish that he be remembered, in inscriptions to be placed upon his tombstone, for three specific accomplishments. The first of these was his authorship of America’s Declaration of Independence. Second was his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Finally, he wanted to be remembered for founding The University of Virginia. Most Americans well know the words of the Declaration of Independence, but few are conversant with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Here, though, he goes into great detail regarding what it means to him to separate operations of the mind from acts of the body (note that though the clauses of the preamble are numbered, for reference, in the following, they are not numbered in the original):
An Act for establishing religious Freedom.
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
1. That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,
2. That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;
3. That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;
4. That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;
5. That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,
6. That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,
7. That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;
8. That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;
9. That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;
10. That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;
11. that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, eight years after he penned his letter to van Limborch, and eight years before penning his note on The State of Virginia, Query XVII; it was first introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 by Thomas Jefferson himself, in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia and; on January 16, 1786, it was enacted by the Assembly into Virginia’s state law. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia, guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths, and is considered a major precursor of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Pay close attention to clauses 5 and 6 of Jefferson’s preamble, as they spell out how far he went to grant religious freedom to the exercise of all religious opinions, and to establish that anyone holding to particular religious opinions cannot be discriminated against by preventing them from being called to serve in offices of trust, or preventing them from being hired to serve in paid positions.
[Ed. Note: Here we also see how religious freedom, and even freedom from religion, placed constraints on the kinds of economic systems that would be suitable for America. Capitalism, which has flourished here, was — at least theoretically — constrained in its development to ensure it did not infringe on the liberties and freedoms of the Americans it employed or served. All other economic systems were similarly constrained, again at least in theory. Insofar as any of the varied economic systems that operate in America stay true to those constraints, they can be thought of as fully American, but where they stray from the ideals that made and continue to make us America, they fail us, both as a people and individually. When that happens they should be revised and reshaped until they fall in line with the American model. If we’re honest we have to admit that capitalism has failed us in this regard (and we’ll also have to admit that every other economic system has failed, as well, though even more egregiously than capitalism). Yet, we’ve been remiss in revising and reshaping capitalism and those other systems so that each is made to conform to America’s focus on liberty and freedom. So, we’re human. We’ve failed. But what else could we hope to do? Succeed at such a superhuman, impossible feat as America sought to accomplish lo those 230-240 years ago? No. We fell short, and we continue to fall short. But we’re still moving in the right direction, and that’s what matters, though maybe — no, surely — we should have done better…]
The context for these freedoms is laid out in the very first line of the statute Jefferson crafted: Almighty God hath created the mind free. Even our Highest Power chose not to force opinions upon our minds. The mind is ours to mold and develop as we see fit. Everyone is free to choose between truth and error, and Jefferson had an unshakable faith in the overweening power of truth to prevail in the end. Over time, Jefferson tells us, truth always prevails over error, to the point that we have nothing to fear from error so long as no restrictions are placed on the right to freely debate the difference between it and the truth that contradicts it.
Were there any exceptions to this, in Jefferson’s mind? Not that can be seen in his writings, and it is fair to say that the broadest of interpretations of Jefferson’s dictum in this regard have served America well throughout its history. No doubt many an individual immigrant who, in their previous lands were practicing fascists, totalitarians, anarchists, headhunters, cannibals, and worse, have been welcomed onto America’s shores and thereafter lived sober, sane, productive and exemplary lives as freedom-loving, liberty-embracing full-blooded American citizens.
As newly minted Americans, they were obligated to live their lives eschewing the un-American predilections and proclivities with which their previous associations and upbringings had imbued them. That is all America requires. A fellow human whose political bent or form of worship differs from mine, but who neither injures me, nor lends support to those who would, is entitled to the same respect I reserve for my closest friends. As Americans, we cannot allow our religious beliefs, or the religious beliefs of others, to alone affect the way we celebrate our mutually guaranteed, unalienable freedoms and liberties.
The martial art known today as Aikido was not invented until the late 1920’s, so Jefferson was not what we would call an Aikidoist. Yet he understood one of the most important tenets of the art:
… “us vs. them” really doesn’t exist, that peoples and nations, civilians and military, Green Berets and their trainers, and even you and I all share a common humanity. As the founder of aikido, Moreihei Ueshiba, said many years ago, the only opponent is within.” George Leonard, Introduction, In Search of the Warrior Spirit, by Richard Strozzi-Heckler.
What Makes Us Americans…
In an important way, Leonard was merely restating Jefferson’s view of what America is all about, even if many, perhaps even most Americans have not drawn the connection yet in their minds. Here in America, “Us vs. Them” doesn’t make sense by itself. All of us are free, linked together by the freedom and liberty that our governing constitution spells out.
The enemy is anything and anyone who would restrict our liberties and freedoms. And, too often — even perhaps most of the time — the enemy is exactly where Moreihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido said it would be. Our biggest opponent to recognizing, granting, and enjoying liberty and freedom in our lives and in the lives of those about us is our preconceived biases and notions. The spirit of that opponent emanates from within our own minds, and shapes how we treat those with whom we share hill and vale, mall and working space, highway and trail. And, much of the time, we are either unconscious, or only dimly aware, of its influence on us.
Still, we manage to get along, at least after a fashion. We do so because we celebrate, most of all, the liberties and freedoms that being Americans confers upon us.
That, we might say, is what makes us Americans. That, at least by virtue of our legal system and the constitution that guides us, can be set forth as the most crystal clear definition possible of who we are. But, as alluded to above, a word of caution is in order. Delineating exactly who we are and what makes us Americans is not a simple matter. As Jefferson himself pointed out, fine lines encircle these concepts, and for those who are not very circumspect, the error of crossing those fine lines into forbidden territories is an easy one to make.
Some Americans in high office today love to lecture their fellow Americans on “who we are.” In truth, however, it is unlikely that anyone can honestly and accurately explain what “who we are” really means. In the past century a number of serious, scholarly attempts have been made to put a finger on the character or personality of each of the nations making up the world, but with little or no success. How could America, the world’s melting pot, be expected to reflect so distinct a personality or character when nations like Norway or Finland do not? And, what is true of America as a whole must also be true of each of the subcultures within America’s borders.
So, what makes us who we are? In America liberty and freedom reign supreme, and peoples from all over the world, espousing all manners of religions and cultural mores, somehow manage to live together in harmony. True, it is short of what might be termed total harmony, but it is a workable kind of harmony nonetheless. Despite the fact that operations of the mind within each of America’s subcultures differ from one another to the point that — as religious, logical, and cultural constructs — they are in serious conflict, we manage to tolerate each other.
It is reasonable to ask how we manage to do that.
Jefferson gave us the answer, in his letter of 1785. We do so because, down at the working, nuts-and-bolts level of our individual societies, all or most of us intuitively recognize the difference between operations of the mind and acts of the body. The average man and woman on the street realizes that there is only one reasonable way to define a given subculture within America; that way does not measure the operations of their minds, but simply takes stock of the actions of their bodies, alone.
One thing should be clear to all Americans. Unfair, bigoted intolerance has no place here, because where the rubber meets the road such behavior is deadly. Ask those of Irish, Italian and Polish ancestry who live and work together in upstate New York cities like Rome, Utica, Syracuse, and Buffalo. Ask the same thing of those who live and work in the Texas cities of Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. Incredibly diverse, strongly conflicting world views are held by the subcultures represented in each of these locales, yet the individuals within those subcultures are able to intermix and work together in a kind of harmony that allows everyone to succeed, so long as each makes a conscious effort to promote fairness and stamp out bigotry.
[Ed. Note: the responsibility for promoting fairness and stamping out bigotry is not just an individual one, but one that the “community” must also embrace. Community responsibilities can be categorized as cultural, religious, or ethnic. Sometimes a complex admixture of all three exists at once within an otherwise apparently homogeneous population of Americans. We see the positive effects of community-wide responsibilities in the ways that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, and Muslims live, work, and play together in diverse neighborhoods within some of America’s largest cities. Where each individual recognizes and celebrates the core American tenet of individual freedom and liberty as their highest goal, the spirit of community takes over and Americanism reigns at its best.]
But again, as the foregoing establishes, we must be careful how we define unfairness and bigotry. The fine lines that encircle those terms are also — specifically for those who are careless in their interpretation of meaning — very treacherous indeed.
As we celebrate this distinctive American character (i.e., its essential diversity), let us pause to reflect on the full scope of what it means. John Locke taught that toleration is not unilateral. Its benefits and proscriptions flow as freely to all others as it does to anyone. It works for America only because of its omnilateral character.
That word, omnilateral, is rarely used in common discourse. Yet it may fit into this discussion with greater precision than does any other word in the English dictionary:
Omnilateral: Facing or directed all ways; representing all points of view; having all or very many aspects or components. Oxford British and English Dictionary.
Omnilateral tolerance was what Locke had in mind in 1689. It was also what Jefferson had in mind in 1785, some 96 years later. In this context it means that every individual in society covenants to tolerate every other individual in that society without doing others harm. As long as everyone in society practices omnilateral tolerance of one another, society prospers, strife diminishes, and peace is elevated. But the ideal of omnilateral tolerance is just that, an ideal. Like all worthy ideals, it is almost never, if ever, attained in full. We can only hope to approach it, but it is our duty to continuously improve in our ability to do so. That ability must be constantly tested, in part by searching for and ferreting out its opposite, bigotry:
Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
The meaning of obstinacy figures mightily in this definition.
Obstinate: perversely adhering to an opinion, purpose, or course in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
One who is obstinate cannot be swayed by reason, no matter how much logic and evidence contrary to their views is brought to the table. The bigot’s mind is made up. As used in this context, “bigot” defines those whose habitual state of mind includes an obstinate, irrational, or unfair rejection of ideas, opinions, ethnicities, or beliefs in variance with their own, along with a rigid intolerance of the people who hold them. Bigots not only refuse to respect those with different beliefs, they hate them, and they do so for no other reason but that they hold to different viewpoints.
One cannot hold to America’s core values of freedom and liberty and be intolerant of the expressed beliefs of others. And that is true, no matter how much those beliefs differ from one’s own. As long as those beliefs are not practiced in such a way that they restrict our liberties and freedoms, to hold to our beliefs, we must respect, absolutely, those who think differently then we do.
Understanding Defensible Intolerance…
Irrational, obstinate, bigoted intolerance is indefensible. Notice here we are not saying all intolerance, but only its irrational, obstinate, bigoted variety. The distinction matters because certain forms of intolerance are not only defendable, but are a logical part of the very fabric of a healthy society. Some forms of such intolerance can even be categorized as religious intolerance. Like when a person, or even a nation, refuses to tolerate the practice of a religious belief that blatantly encourages its followers to violate, and demonstrably leads to the actual violation of, the natural human rights of others.
Think about that, then consider the following puzzle: Two parties are intolerant of one another, but one’s intolerance is wholly an operation of the mind, while the other’s intolerance also manifests in acts of the body. Who is the actionable perpetrator? Who is merely the benign believer? Can you tell the difference?
Many Americans seem unable to do so, to the point that their inability poses so serious a case of cognitive dissonance as to enable highly educated individuals to debate the issue at length without the slightest clue that neither understands what the other is saying. Evidently this difficulty is not one of recent invention, or Locke would not have written so clearly about it in his letter to van Limborch some 326 years ago, and Jefferson would not have felt the need to repeat that concern 96 years later. Today, after more than two and a quarter centuries after Jefferson’s restatement of Locke’s assertion, a major logical error continues to rear its ugly head. And that, I contend, is the root cause of America’s present Islamic conundrum.
When we put this into context, we soon see where it leads:
Consider this: here comes a person, or a group, that holds to a religious belief that asserts that — if you merely practice a different belief, specifically one that is in direct conflict with theirs, one in fact that may even have the effect of ridiculing their beliefs — you are subject to a severe form of punishment. How severe? Name it. Death, at their hands, is not off the table. That punishment, and the threat that it will be carried out when you least expect it, is intended to force you to give up that practice. Yet, nothing you are doing infringes upon their liberties or freedoms, inasmuch as they remain as free as ever to believe whatever they wish to believe.
Now, if you reject their assumed right to punish you, merely by speaking out against it and blatantly continuing to freely practice your beliefs in conflict with theirs, are you then guilty of religious intolerance? In fact, by definition, you are, and that is enough to convict you — in certain courts of American public opinion — of violating their constitutional rights. But is that form of religious intolerance reprehensible? Have you really violated the U.S. Constitution by rejecting their claims and refusing to abandon your non-violent practices? Surely not. But that conclusion is by no means shared by all.
Here many Americans, including some of the most highly placed officials in American government,, many of them celebrated jurists, appear to get confused. They do not see how paradoxical and hypocritical it is for them to claim that (a) your defensible rejection, of the right for the “offended” person or group to punish you, makes you indefensibly intolerant of the offended person’s religion, while they (b) ignore the indefensible religious intolerance on the part of the offended person or group that claims the right to punish you by violent acts of the body.
America was founded as the world’s singular champion of basic, non-negotiable, human rights, not just religious rights. No other nation on earth has had that mantle placed so firmly upon its shoulders. The responsibility for carrying out and upholding the burdens and duties of that mantle falls to every citizen of this land. That’s why our Declaration of Independence proudly asserts that “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.”
Equality to America’s Founders meant equal opportunity for all to enjoy the trappings of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. What this means now, and has always meant, is elucidated in the American Bill of Rights, beginning with the 1st Amendment to the constitution, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
What is meant by the right to a free exercise of one’s religion? Simply put, it means that Americans cannot be prevented from exercising their religious beliefs. Though that implies a blanket right to exercise those religious beliefs in what Jefferson called acts of the body, thinking Americans should know better. Some religious beliefs may grant their adherents the right to use force or coercion to keep others from exercising their beliefs. If such persons were permitted to freely exercise their religious beliefs, the concept of freedom of religion would become an unworkable paradox. Therefore, while the free exercise of individual religious beliefs is automatically guaranteed, that guarantee comes with a caveat: one can, as Jefferson put it, exercise the operations of the mind all they want, and nobody should challenge their rights to do so, but once those operations of the mind are put into action, by turning them into acts of the body, one may only exercise those beliefs so far as by doing so they do not infringe upon the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs of anyone else.
Now, what if a person follows a religion that teaches against one or more of the natural human equalities spelled out in the U.S. Constitution? What if, for example, their religion teaches that they, by virtue of being followers of their religion are — in a purely spiritual sense — entitled to an unequal share of the natural human rights described in that document? Well, it happens that Americans and the U.S. Constitution are ok with that: As long as one (1) merely believes in such an entitlement as an exercise of the mind, but (2) does not exercise that belief through acts of the body, and (3) does not encourage, aid, or abet others to exercise that belief through acts of the body, one is entitled to believe whatever they like. That, too, is a basic human right.
But what if they feel so strongly about their spiritually-based beliefs, that they cannot help but apply them to the way they treat others in their midst, here upon this mortal coil? And, what if they then go so far as to act on those beliefs by trampling on the natural human rights of others? Then, what if a majority of their fellow believers refuse to stand up and publicly condemn those violations?
The bounds of one person’s freedom do not extend to the right to curtail the freedom of another without just cause. Being an American does not convey the right to destroy what America stands for. It carries with it solemn, non-negotiable obligations, including a duty to uphold and enforce, within one’s own family and community, by acts of the body even if not through operations of the mind, the rights of all. On the official website for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the rights and responsibilities of being a U.S. Citizen are listed. At the top of the list of responsibilities is “To Support and Defend the Constitution.” A citizen has an obligation and duty to both support, and defend, the constitution. One supports the constitution by enforcing the rights it enumerates for everyone in one’s home, and in one’s community. And one defends the constitution by standing up to, rebuking, and reporting to the proper authorities, all those in one’s home and community who are observed to abrogate those rights.
When adherents to a particular religion fail to uphold the obligations and duties that come with American citizenship, the door is opened to subject their religious beliefs to some form of legal censure. Further, if a religious belief demonstrably threatens — by making overt threats, or by using force, violence, and mayhem — the lives of others, then those who espouse such beliefs are subject to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.
But “What ifs” are just that, mere hypothetical constructs. What about reality?
We have, today in America, an excellent example of an existential threat — of a religious nature —that is, by every tenet of America’s Bill of Rights, intolerable. Yet, we foolishly tolerate it by failing to marshal the full power of the law to expose and stamp that threat out, wherever it rears its ugly head. Worse, those who criticize and call for censuring this threat are castigated in the media, ironically by not only the liberal left but by the conservative right alike.
[Ed. note: There is something to be said for the importance of celebrating liberty and freedom for their sakes alone. Often, when someone’s exercise of free speech incites those who take offense to retaliate, a chorus of criticism is heaped upon the free-speaker, as though free speech is supposed to be modulated. Yet, who is to be the judge of what should be allowed and what should not? By its very nature free speech is nearly boundless, else by arbitrarily establishing boundaries we would soon witness a continuous constriction of those boundaries until, before long, we’d lose that freedom altogether. Free speech has no bounds, so long as it is not done expressly to incite violence. The proper answer to “Why are you doing, saying, writing, or drawing that?” is “Because I am free to do so.” Nothing else is or should be required, and all who love liberty and freedom should come to their defense and support when they reply in that wise, whether they agree with what is being done, said, written, or drawn or not. Liberty and its free exercise is its own reward, and never needs to be justified or excused.]
Lost our way? Here, yes, we have done so. All America should stand tall against this threat, and bravely root its makers out and bring them to justice, yet today a substantial number of our citizens wrongly believe that, so long as those who make this threat do so on religious grounds they can and should be tolerated, and those who are threatened are either the true villains. At the very least, some say, those who use free speech to ridicule, criticize, or shame others are culpable, and thus not worthy of society’s whole-hearted support.
[Ed. note: the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend with my life your right to say it,” is frequently misattributed to Voltaire, and is often used to describe the principle of freedom of speech. It was penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1956) in her 1906 book, Friends of Voltaire, to illustrate Voltaire’s beliefs.]
The threat I write about emanates — not just from radicals — but from mainstream Islam itself. It involves a religious proscription, rooted within the most basic tenets of the muslim faith, against drawing a likeness of the prophet Mohammed. Doing so is blasphemy, in the view of most if not all muslims. Yet, for those muslims who believe this merely as an exercise of the mind, but who do not translate it into an act of the body, we must agree with Jefferson and withhold judgement. In the entire history of the United States of America, muslims have lived here, contributing to America’s development and growth as a nation, and helping make us who we are. Rarely in the past have the beliefs of Islam been acted out in such a way as to constitute overt criminal acts.
Unfortunately, at this time in history, that has changed.
Americans who dare to violate the Islamic proscription against drawing Mohammed do so at their peril. It matters not that doing so is specifically protected by the U.S. Constitution. Nor does it matter that their violation does not trample on the rights of anyone, anywhere. They risk their very lives for violating an obscure muslim belief, because (1) there happen to exist enough radical, religiously-motivated muslims in America who are willing to kill such violators, and (2) many Americans, seemingly unaware of the words enshrined in our constitution, foolishly believe that the sensitivities of such muslims should be defended.
What percentage of American muslims believe that drawing a caricature of Mohammed is a crime? It is fair to say that nearly all who practice the faith of Islam so believe, as that belief is spelled out in Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an. Furthermore, that belief is spelled out in such a way as to make its adherence mandatory to all muslims. How many of those also believe that crime is punishable by death? Again, punishment by death or life imprisonment for blasphemy is also spelled out in the Qur’an, so all who practice the Islamic faith must at least give lip service to it.
But how many believe the words of the Qur’an so firmly that they are willing to kill those guilty of such a “crime”? Precise answers to this question are wanting, but evidence from many sources suggests the number of American muslims willing to kill those who blaspheme their faith is not trivial. As many as 80% of American mosques are headed by radical imams who preach strict adherence to the teachings of the Qur’an.
It seems likely that the fraction of radical mosques in America is similar to that found in France. Recently one of the chief imams in that country, Hassan El Alaoui, reported that he believed French authorities would soon close down more than 100 mosques in the wake of the Paris attacks:
“According to official figures and our discussions with the interior ministry,” El Alaoui said, “between 100 and 160 more mosques will be closed because they are run illegally without proper licences, they preach hatred, or use takfiri speech.”
Takfiris accuse fellow Muslims who do not adhere to their rigid interpretation of the Islamic faith, particularly with regard to apostasy and blasphemy. Hate speech also abounds in many American mosques, as documented by a number of authoritative sources, which underscores the risk that American muslims are regularly being encouraged to stand up for their faith by severely punishing those who dare to blaspheme Islam.
One case in point:
In April 2010 Molly Norris, then a resident of Seattle, Washington, published a cartoon online depicting a fictional group she called “Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor.” Her cartoon was dedicated to the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It proposed an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” Death threats came quickly. On 11 July 2010 it was learned that a fatwa (essentially a death warrant) had been issued by the radical American-born imam Anwar al-Awlaki, then living in Yemen. Al-Awlaki fingered Norris as a prime target for Islamic execution. Later that fall, as criticism of Norris for exercising her 1st Amendment rights escalated, she was advised by the FBI of evidence they had that her life was in serious danger. After some authorities suggested she should go into hiding, she did just that. Molly Norris has not been seen since. Today she has changed her name, is still in hiding, and jihadist threats against her life remain in effect.
On 3 May 2015 two American muslim men attacked the Curtis Culwell Center, in Garland, Texas, where an exhibit was featuring cartoon images of Mohammed. The two muslim men attacked officers with gunfire at the entrance to the exhibit, shooting a Garland Independent School District security officer in the ankle. Fortunately, before they could proceed into the exhibit, both were shot and killed by a police officer.
Only minutes earlier, one of the gunmen had posted on twitter “May Allah accept us as mujahideen.”
This attack was not surprising. Everyone worldwide was familiar with an earlier mass shooting, carried out by militant muslim jihadists at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. The gunman shouted “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is great” in Arabic. The innocent victims of that killing were guilty of one thing: caricaturing the founder of Islam in cartoons, just as proposed by the fictional group created by Molly Norris, and as was on exhibit at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. Mainstream Islam condoned this act of barbarism, on the grounds that those who were killed had violated Islamic law and were rightly subject to being put to death for that transgression.
A few other brave souls have drawn and published drawings of Mohammed. Most who did so have either gone into hiding or have been executed, some of them killed years after a fatwa was issued that ordered the followers of Islam to kill them.
So, to nobody’s surprise, not many people have had the courage to follow Molly’s example. Does anyone wonder why? Does anyone suppose that the religious belief behind what caused this innocent young lady to disappear, and for 12 staff members at Charlie Hebdo to die (and 11 others to be wounded) would not also be visited upon others who dared to scribble and publish drawings of Mohammed? Even here, in America?
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not negotiable. Some Americans dispute that, but they are wrong. We don’t bend the U.S. Constitution to fit the beliefs of religionists, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. That’s not who we are.
Isn’t it time we awakened to the fact that we have no place in America for people who honestly believe that those who draw pictures of their prophet have committed a crime? Isn’t it time we stopped excusing them for that belief, and proclaim the truth: that those who would persecute, and who tolerate or encourage others to persecute, the perpetrators of such religiously-based “crimes” prove themselves unworthy to live in this land?
Those immigrants who have been embraced by America over the two centuries and more of our existence as a nation, and those in particular who were fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs, do truly make us what we are today. We must never, ever, stop welcoming such into our midst, with open arms. But it is foolhardy for America to welcome those who wish us harm, whose values, whose views of justice, are 180 degrees out from those that guide this great nation. Actually, foolhardy is too mild a word.
Perhaps we do need to stop bringing muslims into America until we can figure out, as Donald Trump crudely, but succinctly, put it, “what the hell we are doing.” Political correctness is suicidal where this issue is concerned. And those running for President in the 2016 election need to wake up to that fact. As they and we mull this over, it may be helpful to take note of the following words, written in 1919 by a past president of the United States, three days before his death:
“We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.” Source: from a letter written by Theodore Roosevelt, on January 3, 1919, to Richard Hurd, president of the American Defense Society; the letter was read publicly at a meeting on January 5, 1919, the day before Roosevelt died.
- IHEU. 2014. Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression. International Humanist and Ethical Union.
- Jefferson, Thomas. 1785. Notes on the State of Virginia. Federalist Papers.
- Locke, John. 1689. A Letter Concerning Toleration.
- Roosevelt, Theodore. 1919. Letter to Richard Hurd, President of American Defense Society. Snopes.com (copy rec. from Library of Congress)
- Spellberg, Denise. 2013. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Knopf.
- Strozzi-Heckler, Richard. 1990. In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Military. Blue Snake Books.
- Terraciano, A., et al. 2005. National Character Does Not Reflect Mean Personality Trait Levels in 49 Cultures. Science. 2005 Oct 7; 310(5745): 96–100.
- U.N. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.
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