Vail Daily column: Jefferson trumps Trump on protecting religious liberty
By denigrating Muslims, Donald Trump acts and sounds very un-Jeffersonian. President Jefferson protected religious liberty from power-usurping opportunists. He guaranteed citizen-rights irrespective of country of origin, race, ethnicity or religion.
Trump’s ban on Muslims ignores parts of the Christmas story. A Jewish couple and their son Jesus, fleeing King Herod — killer of newborns — sought refuge in Egypt. This country, later populated by a Muslim majority, didn’t block their entry. Trump should learn from this Christmas scenario.
Like barbaric Germanic tribes that stormed gates of the civilized Roman Empire, Donald Trump delights in raising furor. In early December, he called for a temporary ban on all Muslims from entry into the U.S., including Muslim citizens who are tourists or business travelers. He demands the U.S. close its borders to Muslims until our leaders figure out how to separate law-abiding immigrants from radical Islamic saboteurs.
How does this ban on Muslims square with Jefferson’s conviction that the U.S. must firmly protect constitutional free exercise of religion? Such legal precedent doesn’t bother the Donald. He described his plan on the ban before ardent admirers in South Carolina. He blustered, “I wrote something today (referring to the ban on Muslims) that I think is very, very salient, very important and probably not politically correct.” He’s naive, assuming the ban doesn’t contradict the First Amendment’s guarantees on religious freedom.
Trump stokes fears that ignite his GOP base. Using tough anti-Muslim talk, his political intemperance appeals to blue-collar workers wary of career politicians. Older white Tea Party voters also endorse him. An early December Associated Press-GfK poll, conducted prior to Trump’s ban, reported 63 percent of evangelical Christian respondents gave thumbs up that Muslim immigration is already too high.
In George Orwell’s prophetic book “1984,” the Ministry of Truth decrees: “Ignorance is truth.” Trump personifies this creed. His narrow political thought forces listeners to march in mental lockstep. By suspending liberties to Muslim immigrants, he says, the U.S. safe-guards Americans from terrorist attacks.
History shows how Donald Trump is no Thomas Jefferson. In 1801, President Jefferson supported colonial Baptists who felt like immigrants in the foreign land of Danbury, Connecticut. They composed a minority in New England where Congregational Protestants, whose lineage went back to the Pilgrims, controlled society.
Baptists and Congregationalists fought over appropriate language to describe their personal God. New England power-brokers spoke in reserved tones about a mysterious God selecting them to educate citizens in Christian faith. Baptists gushed about their friend Jesus, who saved converts offering their hearts to him. These fierce rivals sounded as if they came from different religious planets.
In 1801, Danbury Baptists wrote Jefferson, telling him they weren’t allowed religious freedom in Congregationalist-dominated New England. He responded, noting “useful truths and principles among the people” that furnished foundations for religious liberties.
Jefferson commiserated with the persecuted Baptists banned in Danbury. Congregationalists acted as if God favored their church and spurned the Baptists — counterparts to today’s Muslims. Rejecting a national church, Jefferson’s response to Danbury Baptists included quoting the First Amendment’s religion clauses: that the free exercise of religion for all people required the absence of a national church.
With his proposed ban, Donald Trump acts like a national church of one who decrees that if you are Muslim, then you aren’t trust-worthy enough to migrate into the United States.
Sometimes Trump delivers off-the-cuff derogatory jabs against women, Mexicans and Muslims. But his verbally calculated ban on Muslims entering the U.S. was carefully timed. It was delivered the day after President Obama’s Dec. 6 address to the nation on the San Bernardino, California, carnage.
In this Oval Office address, the president declared that “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world—including millions of patriotic Americans who reject their hateful ideology.”
Who are these Muslims to whom the president refers and Trump wants to ban? Muslims and Christians are devoted to disciplined living. These Muslims care for the poor. They accept much of the Christian Bible as a sacred map to follow. The Qu’ran mentions Jesus 93 times, ranking him as a prophet right below Muhammad.
Among families of faith rooted in Abraham, Christians and Muslims are “cousins” whose religious quest shares common strengths.
Donald Trump boycotts the First Amendment. He overlooks a constitutional rejection of religious tests for elective office and citizenship. His ban is un-American. It’s inhospitable. And it drives a stake in the heart of our Jeffersonian Republic that protects religious liberties.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).
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