The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom – one of three accomplishments listed on Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph – reads in part, “no man shall…suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” In his autobiography, Jefferson made it clear he meant all religions there.
Some legislators wanted to name Jesus Christ in the statute, but they were voted down. Thus, Jefferson wrote, the law was meant “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahommedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
The First Amendment’s guarantees of religious freedom drew inspiration from the Virginia statute. It formed the basis of America’s one true shared religious value: We do not discriminate on the basis of religious belief.
On Monday, Donald Trump suggested the United States ban all Muslims – including American citizens currently traveling abroad – from entering the country, indefinitely.
He didn’t offer details on how he’d carry out this plan of his; he never does. He didn’t say how he’d tell Christians with Arab names apart from Muslims with Arab names, or if this only applied to Middle Eastern Muslims or European, African and Asian Muslims as well. (Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world.)
What Trump has made perfectly clear is his willingness to dismantle the most fundamental principles that define our nation. As president, Donald Trump told us Monday, he would undo America.
Conservatives and liberals tend to disagree on the particulars of what it means to be patriotic. If we have one thing in common, it’s that we both think our own beliefs make us more patriotic than the other side.
But if there’s one definition we should agree on, it’s this: Being patriotic means loving and protecting the fundamental principles that make the United States a free country. We’d have disagreements on the particulars, of course. Many conservatives seem to think protesting college students are a threat to free speech, while most liberals believe the Second Amendment should apply only to well-regulated militias.
Even when it comes to religious freedom we can disagree, as recent arguments over birth control and wedding cakes demonstrate. But anyone who takes a moment to breathe and consider would realize that applying a religious test to immigration – not to mention own citizens – must know that it is a profound violation of the most basic values we are all supposed to share.
And yet when Trump reiterated his plan to ban Muslims from crossing our shores at a campaign rally, he was met with wild applause. These weren’t swastika-tattooed skinheads cheering him on (though the white supremacist set adores him). But his supporters have reached such a fever pitch of fear that even this ugly idea sounds good to them.
That fear is understandable. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino sent a powerful message: Terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, at any time. All it takes is religious furor and access to guns. Of course people are afraid.
But that fear tests our patriotism. Do we overreact to the fear and lose who we are in the process? The first reaction from conservatives to the Paris attacks was to ban Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., and the rhetoric only devolved from there.
Trump’s call Monday to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. altogether was met with condemnation from both sides of the aisle. Hillary Clinton called it “reprehensible.” Even Dick Cheney, who believes torturing terror suspects is compatible with being American, said the proposal “goes against everything we believe in.” The candidates who have been chasing Trump’s ideological heels the whole campaign condemned him. Jeb Bush called him unhinged. Marco Rubio said his statements were “offensive and outlandish.”
Why the outcry now? Trump’s entire campaign has been predicated on one racist statement or another. His rallies have devolved into violence more than once. Bush was right to call Trump unhinged, but he’s been unhinged since the day he announced his candidacy, accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and criminals.
In a campaign marked by bright red lines dimmed by the dust Trump leaves behind as he crosses them, what made this line so different? What made his crossing so much uglier, even for him?
The immigration debate has always been contentious, but adding a religious test to entry creates a new fault between the sides. And those on the side that would ban all Muslims from entering the United States have forfeited their rights forever to claim to be patriotic Americans.
They have given themselves totally over to fear – and, let’s be honest, hatred – and allowed it to destroy their belief in the absolute minimum of what it means to be an American. We don’t arrest people for saying things we don’t like, and we don’t discriminate because of religious beliefs. Those are the basics, and if you can’t manage those, you do not love this country.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t get everything right. He was a slave owner (and slave rapist), a deeply flawed human being. But we honor him still for his role defining the most fundamental liberties that make up what it means to be an American. He understood that religious liberty must apply to all faiths for it to have any meaning at all. Any American who would pick and choose which religions get that sacred protection is no American. The mantle of patriotism doesn’t belong to conservatives or liberals alone, but there is a minimum requirement; Donald Trump, and all who support him after Monday’s announcement, don’t meet it.