The very first clause of the very first amendment to the United States Constitution is about the Freedom of Religion. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
The men who made this idea the law in 1791 came from families that had fled from England and Europe because of many generations of religious intolerance. It was not at all an abstract idea for the Founding Fathers. They could name members of their families who had been sent to the gallows or the guillotine for supporting a religion different than the monarch’s religion.
American leaders have worked hard to uphold Freedom of Religion because it is better for all of the people. In his last column as Editor of Newsweek magazine, Jon Meacham reported:
In 1957, President and Mrs. Eisenhower attended the opening of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. (They doffed their shoes; the first lady padded about in her nylons.) “And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends,” the president said, “that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.”
As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower designed the D-Day invasion and lead troops across France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. Then General Eisenhower managed the documentation of the horrors of the Nazi death camps. He ordered filmmakers to collect evidence from the concentration camps to use at the Nuremberg Trials to convict Nazi war criminals in 1946. So he saw firsthand the horrors of religious persecution: more than six million Jews, including more than a million children died in the Holocaust. While executing the Jews, the Nazis also systematically rounded up and killed the Roma (then called gypsies), homosexuals, people with disabilities, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. President Eisenhower was a Presbyterian, but his mother was a type of Jehovah’s Witness. He would know better than almost anyone the dangerous outcomes of intolerance and the vital importance of freedom of religion.
So how did we get from Eisenhower’s enlightened view in 1957 to dozens of people protesting at mosques in New York City and Tennessee in 2010? Why are strangers sending chain emails in ALL CAPS asking the reader to withhold the rights of Muslims in America? Should millions of Muslims be denied their freedom of religion because of 19 hijackers who did the damage on 9/11?
If this made sense, you could say that Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a truck bomb at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people including children in the day care center, represents all Irish Catholics. So the Irish Catholics should not be allowed to have St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue? So there should not be any Roman Catholic churches in Oklahoma City?
If the crime of one Catholic terrorist is not considered to indict all Catholics, then the crimes of 19 Muslims should not implicate all Muslims. In the big picture, we need to go back and look at what will really “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, and insure domestic Tranquility” in the United States. Encouraging intolerance and bigotry may temporarily build the bank accounts for the people preaching hate, but it will not create the kind of country where people of good will want to live, work, and worship. It is time for everyone to speak up for Freedom of Religion.