Religious freedom in America and its source
by RICHARD PERES*
09 January 2011, Sunday
While I was in America in December an important anniversary came and went with little notice by anyone. On Dec. 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to approve the ratification of the first 10 amendments -- also called the Bill of Rights -- to the US Constitution.
There were only 14 states at the time, and Virginia’s approval met the three-fourths requirement for states to approve constitutional changes.
What the early American settlers did more than 200 years ago has direct applicability today to the WikiLeaks revelations, the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy and the lives of millions. The First Amendment often comes up in conversations; its meaning is continually discussed and seems to sit in the forefront of American consciousness.
The First Amendment amounts to just 45 words, the first 16 providing religious freedom. It is clear, concise, amazingly to the point and without qualification:
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.
How is it that such a religious country so clearly kept religion out of the realm of government?
The paradox of American secularism
It is well known that the founding fathers of America -- Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, etc. -- were all Christians who openly espoused their beliefs within the context of establishing government in America, as do today’s presidents who proclaim “God bless America” during official events. Hamilton’s comments after the constitutional convention in 1787 were typical: “For my own part, I sincerely esteem it [the Constitution] as a system which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests.” Yet, notwithstanding these orations, and the fact that “In God We Trust” adorns US currency, the clear language of the first amendment is a barrier to government intrusions into the religious realm. Religious freedom was the first right of the first amendment to the US Constitution -- why was it so important?
The answer stems from the fact that America was most often settled by those who fled religious persecution. In fact, it was a group of French Protestants, called Huguenots, who founded the first European colony in America in 1564 (in what is now Florida), escaping the persecution of Catholics. Their freedom was a matter of life and death. Beginning with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Aug. 24, 1572, 25,000 Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholics just in Paris alone in less than a month. Throughout the 17th century they and other Christians who were victimized for their beliefs arrived in US ports, looking for religious freedom and assimilating with the population. In fact Paul Revere, the famous first hero of the Revolutionary War, was descended from Huguenots, as well as Henry Laurens, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Alexander Hamilton. Similarly, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by English Puritans (Congregationalists), Pennsylvania by British Quakers, Maryland by English Catholics and Virginia by English Anglicans. Today there are more than 200 different religious denominations in America and a growing number of non-Christian ones, including those believing in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
The key point here is that there is no contradiction between the religious character of American society and the fact that American public life is organized around religious freedom. Religious freedom in America emanates from below, that is, from the interests of its people, not its government. The government, or state, has no involvement other than to stipulate and enforce the free exercise of religion.
Islam in America
Although religion is not asked by US census takers, the general estimate, based on NGO surveys, is that there are between 6 million and 10 million believers of Islam in America today. Initial settlers came from the Ottoman Empire between the 1880s and 1914. Today’s US Muslim population consists of people mostly from South Asia and Arab countries.
The Islamic population in America suffers more discrimination than other groups but knows that such discrimination is unlawful and is willing to exercise its rights. “While Muslims comprise less than 2 percent of the American population, they accounted for approximately one quarter of the religious discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during 2009.”
Ironically, America’s founding fathers were sympathetic to Islamic people. Among the many fascinating bits of information you will find on the Internet, through sites such as Wikipedia, regarding Islam in America:
“In 1776, John Adams published ‘Thoughts on Government,’ in which he praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a ‘sober inquirer after truth’ alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates and other pagan and Christian thinkers.”
“In 1785, George Washington stated a willingness to hire ‘Mahometans,’ as well as people of any nation or religion, to work on his private estate at Mount Vernon if they were ‘good workmen’.”
Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, and Thomas Jefferson defended the religious freedom of Muslim people in America.
In summary, despite America’s religiosity, it is no wonder that America’s earliest legislators enacted the First Amendment and took a “hands-off” attitude towards religion on the part of government.
The post-9/11 world
Unquestionably, religious freedom is being tested in America in regards to Islamic people after the traumatizing events of Sept. 11. The divide is serious and comes to the surface even in my discussions with friends regardless of their religion or education. I try to combat vindictive generalizations with my own experiences in Turkey, and the people I know personally and interact with daily -- sometimes without success.
The latest attack on the political front in the US comes from one Peter King, the new Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the US House of Representatives. He is launching an investigation into the “radicalization” of American Muslims, similar to the “investigation” of the New York City mosque he touted last summer. Representative Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim member of congress, objected and told this to Mr. King face-to-face in the halls of Congress. He said that vilifying one community was the wrong approach.
Even in this environment I remain hopeful. For one thing, religious freedom and respect for others’ beliefs enabled Mr. Ellison to get elected in the first place. The First Amendment’s protections are well-established in America.
And there are the people I met during my recent visit to the States. One is a middle school principal in Maryland who supports the right to wear any kind of religious attire in her school, including a young Sikh who wears a turban and has never had a haircut.
And finally there is a Turkish friend, an Islamic woman, living in New York City. Her 9-year-old girl wants to wear a headscarf. She tried to have her postpone that decision until she is older, but her daughter insisted. Having faced bad treatment because of her own religious beliefs and concerned about how she might be treated unfairly at school, the mother met with her daughter’s school principal. But the principal assured her that this was not a problem and that she would watch out for her daughter and intercede should she be harassed or have difficulties in school.
*Richard Peres is the author of two books on discrimination law and a writer living in İstanbul. http://richperes.blogspot.com firstname.lastname@example.org