Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Founding Fathers Meet Ground Zero

Storms of controversy surround the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York, while precincts as far away as Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Sheboyan, Kansas, have experienced public opposition to mosques entering their neighborhoods. What would the Founders say?

In an article published shortly after the terror attacks of 2001, historian and head of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, James Hutson, shed light on the situation. His remarks, so different from the heated rhetoric filling today's airwaves, deserve quotation:

"Readers may be surprised to learn that there may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776—imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished. Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.

In his seminal Letter on Toleration (1689), John Locke insisted that Muslims and all others who believed in God be tolerated in England. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson followed Locke, his idol, in demanding recognition of the religious rights of the "Mahamdan," the Jew and the "pagan." Supporting Jefferson was his old ally, Richard Henry Lee, who had made a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, that the American colonies declare independence. "True freedom," Lee asserted, "embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion."

In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature "rejected by a great majority" an effort to limit the bill's scope "in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan." George Washington suggested a way for Muslims to "obtain proper relief" from a proposed Virginia bill, laying taxes to support Christian worship. On another occasion, the first president declared that he would welcome "Mohometans" to Mount Vernon if they were "good workmen" (see page 96). Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded "the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians," a point that Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons resoundingly affirmed in 1810."

Hutson concludes: "The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it. Adherents of the faith were, with some exceptions, regarded as men and women who would make law-abiding, productive citizens. Far from fearing Islam, the Founders would have incorporated it into the fabric of American life."

Would that our leaders today were equally wise and tolerant!

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