Since the founding of America, religion has played a key role in America’s political procedures and campaigns. Whether it was the inclusion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that created the establishment and free exercise clauses for religion, or President John Adams leveling accusations of atheism against his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the presidential campaign of 1800, religion has been a constant presence within American politics.
Now, in 2016, religion has once again emerged as a major issue within the current presidential race. First, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country and the surveillance of U.S. Muslims by federal, state, and local authorities. These dangerous suggestions violate the very conscience of the American experiment. America was established on the foundation that “all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” America was not founded on the basis of suspicion and suppressing human rights.
The First Amendment establishes a precedent for the freedom of religion and prohibits unfair targeting of religion by the government. We cannot sacrifice foundational principles at the alter of political grandstanding. Security must be a priority for any political candidate in America, but to use religion as a gauge for patriotism is un-American. Granted, America should be guarded against any person or country that seeks to harm us, but we cannot mistake the religio-political rhetoric and practices of extremists with the heartfelt conscience of most Muslims living out their faith and attempting to make their lives better.
Second, it was recently revealed that leaders within the Democratic National Convention were attempting to influence the primary by using Senator Bernie Sanders’ Jewish faith or atheism (never confirmed) against him. As stated previously, political rivals have long used personal religious beliefs or lack of belief as political fodder since the foundation of the country. From Jefferson to John Kennedy, presidential hopefuls have had to answer critical questions about their personal faiths. Religious litmus tests were wrong then and they are wrong now.
In Article VI, paragraph three, of the United States Constitution, the framers concluded, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” When Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, ran for the presidency in 2012, it was wrong for anyone to use his Mormonism as a disqualifying argument for public office. In 2008, former Republican Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, articulated this sentiment beautifully when false allegations were leveled against Democratic Senator Barrack Obama for being a Muslim. Powell rightly concluded that even if Senator Obama was a Muslim, which he is not, it would not prevent him from being president because we have a “no religious test clause” in this country. As American citizens, if we say we believe in the Constitution then we should also live by it.
There is no denying the reality that religion has always, and will always, play a part in the American political process, but we must denounce situations when religion and politics go wrong. As a country, we must come to a more mature understanding of religion’s proper role. Religion should never be used as a target for the purpose of oppression and marginalization. Religious Liberty is a foundational American principle; an ideal we cannot jeopardize. When we begin using religion as a tool to advance political agendas, we then devalue every religion and cease being American.
In 1790, Baptist minister and advocate for Religious Liberty, John Leland, penned, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
This is the American spirit….