The culture war being waged in America may be distilled into a single, fundamental conflict between Christianity (in the broad sense) and all other ideologies, religions, and philosophies. One particular intrusion making encroachments into America’s Christian values is the growing mainstream receptivity to non-Christian religion. Case in point: a Muslim recently won the Democratic primary for Minnesota’s 5th District and, should he win the November election, will become the first Muslim in American history to secure a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (Teslik, 2006).
InPlainSite.org Note: Since the writing of this article Keith Ellison has become the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison converted to Islam as a college student, has past ties with the Nation of Islam and favours gay rights and abortion rights.
Many Americans—those who have been influenced by the social and political liberalism of the last few years—consider this prospect a laudable circumstance. They believe that such diversity is healthy and serves to strengthen the fabric of society. They have swallowed the politically correct propaganda touted for 50 years that pluralism is the superior ideology, and that all religions are equally valid, authentic, and true. But what would the Founders say? How receptive were they to the influx of non-Christian religions into the country and the government? What were their views, specifically, about Islam?
Interestingly enough, the Founders made multiple references to Islam (see Miller, 2005). We Americans often are so uninformed, even disinterested, in our history that we simply are oblivious to the views of the architects of the Republic—and the firmness with which they championed those views. One typical example would be the discussion that took place on the floor of the North Carolina State Convention that met to debate ratification of the U.S. Constitution. On Wednesday, July 30, 1788, Mr. Henry Abbot (a minister) initiated a discussion by articulating serious concerns entertained by some of the delegates. They were not convinced that the Constitution provided the same guarantees as the state constitution to practice Christianity according to their own interpretation of the Bible without interference from the federal government. They likewise were concerned that this guarantee of religious freedom to the exclusion of fixed religious test oaths might be distorted to allow false religions or even atheism to make encroachments:
Some are afraid, Mr. Chairman, that, should the Constitution be received, they would be deprived of the privilege of worshipping God according to their consciences, which would be taking from them a benefit they enjoy under the present constitution. They wish to know if their religious and civil liberties be secured under this system, or whether the general government may not make laws infringing their religious liberties.... The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans.... I would be glad [if] some gentleman would endeavor to obviate these objections, in order to satisfy the religious part of the society (Elliot, 1836, 4:191-192, emp. added).
A response was offered by James Iredell, who, since the Revolution, had served the state of North Carolina both as a judge on the State Superior Court as well as State Attorney-General, and was soon to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington: “Mr. Chairman, nothing is more desirable than to remove the scruples of any gentleman on this interesting subject. Those concerning religion are entitled to particular respect” (Elliot, 4:192). He proceeded to explain at length that the establishment of one Christian sect above another has always led to persecution and war—as evidenced in Catholic countries as well as by the Church of England, from whence they had only recently extricated themselves. Consequently, the restriction placed on Congress in the federal Constitution would prevent the government from interfering with the free practice of the Christian religion. He then remarked:
But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagan and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened. Nor would it answer the purpose, for the worst part of the excluded sects would comply with the test, and the best men only be kept out of our counsels (Elliot, 4:494, emp. added).
Observe that Iredell conceded that in order for the Constitution to guarantee Christians the right to worship God according to their own conscience, non-Christians would inevitably be permitted the same constitutional protection. Indeed, the Founders would have never countenanced the persecution of atheists or those who espoused non-Christian religion. Are we to assume from this observation, however, that the Founders held non-Christian religions, like Islam, in high regard, or that they desired non-Christian religions to be encouraged, or that they sanctioned all religions as equally authentic and credible? Absolutely not! As Iredell further explained:
But it is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own. It would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines. The divine Author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority. Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? It made much greater progress for itself, than when supported by the greatest authority upon earth (Elliot, 4:194, emp. added).
Iredell reasoned that by leaving the Constitution non-specific with regard to religion would prevent religious persecution. And further, tolerating non-Christian religions would not endanger the Founders’ assumption that Christianity would remain the worldview and moral framework that undergirds the nation. Why? Because he felt confident that Americans would never endanger their dearest rights by voting non-Christians (whether atheists or Muslims) into the government. Yet, tragically, we are doing just that. And did you notice Iredell’s allusion to “the divine Author of our religion”? What Author and what religion do you suppose he intended? He quoted that Author in his very next sentence: “Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?” Those words are the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 16:18. The Author to Whom he referred was Christ, and Christ is the author of only one religion: Christianity.
Iredell next discoursed on the essentiality of an oath to be taken by those who wish to serve in political office. He insisted that this oath should contain two critical components: belief in a Supreme Being and belief in a future state of rewards and punishments. Neither of these two prerequisites to holding office were deemed a violation of the freedom of religion clause of the Constitution.
The next to speak was the Governor of North Carolina—Samuel Johnston. Eight years earlier he had served as a member of the Continental Congress. He, too, was astonished that some were concerned that the Constitution provided insufficient guarantee of the priority and free exercise of the Christian religion to the exclusion of competing religions:
I read the Constitution over and over, but could not see one cause of apprehension or jealousy on this subject. When I heard there were apprehensions that the pope of Rome could be the President of the United States, I was greatly astonished. It might as well be said that the king of England or France, or the Grand Turk [now obsolete term for Ottoman Empire Muslim leader—DM], could be chosen to that office. It would have been as good an argument. It appears to me that it would have been dangerous, if Congress could intermeddle with the subject of religion. True religion is derived from a much higher source than human laws. When any attempt is made, by any government, to restrain men’s consciences, no good consequence can possibly follow (Elliot, 4:198, emp. added).
Observe that the governor argued that the odds of a non-Protestant getting into office were so infinitesimal as not to merit any concern. Also, being the one true religion and having the backing of God Himself, Christianity can fend for itself without the “assistance” of human government. But then the governor offered a rather chilling prediction:
It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, &c., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President, or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves. Another case is, if any persons of such descriptions should, notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen. I leave it to gentlemen’s candor to judge what probability there is of the people’s choosing men of different sentiments from themselves (Elliot, 4:198-199, emp. added).
Does the Constitution allow Americans to elect to political office people who do not profess the Christian religion? Yes, it does. Would Americans ever actually do that? The Founders’ response: very unlikely and highly improbable. But if, indeed, it were ever to happen—it would be most unfortunate! Hear that, Minnesota?
Governor Johnston then explained that, though each of the 13 states was heavily populated by professors of one or more of the various Protestant denominations, “there is no cause of fear that any one religion shall be exclusively established” (Elliot, 4:199)—further testimony to the fact that the single religion of the United States was almost entirely Christian (in the form of Protestant sects) to the exclusion of atheism and the world religions. But Mr. David Caldwell (also a minister) rose and reiterated the lingering concern that danger might arise:
In the first place, he said, there was an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us. At some future period, said he, this might endanger the character of the United States. Moreover, even those who do not regard religion, acknowledge that the Christian religion is best calculated, of all religions, to make good members of society, on account of its morality. I think, then, added he, that, in a political view, those gentlemen who formed this Constitution should not have given this invitation to Jews and heathens. All those who have any religion are against the emigration of those people from the eastern hemisphere (Elliot, 4:199, emp. added).
In other words, Jews, pagans, and people from the eastern hemisphere (which certainly includes Muslims) would constitute a threat to the religious and moral foundation on which America was founded. Mr. Spencer rose to reaffirm the same two reassurances asserted by Governor Johnston:
It is feared...that persons of bad principles, deists, atheists, &c., may come into this country; and there is nothing to restrain them from being eligible to offices. He asked if it was reasonable to suppose that the people would choose men without regarding their characters.... But in this case, as there is not a religious test required, it leaves religion on the solid foundation of its own inherent validity, without any connection with temporal authority (Elliot, 4:200, emp. added).
Again, yes, we are concerned about the nation remaining firmly Christian in its overall thrust, but we cannot force everyone to take a religious oath without creating conflict. Therefore, (1) we must rely on the good sense of the American people to refrain from appointing to political office any who do not possess Christian character and (2) Christianity is able to maintain its own credibility and superiority without any help from human government.
Governor Johnston brought the discussion to a close with an amicable summary of the mutual sentiments of the delegates, as reported in the following words:
He admitted a possibility of Jews, pagans, &c., emigrating to the United States; yet, he said, they could not be in proportion to the emigration of Christians who should come from other countries; that, in all probability, the children even of such people would be Christians; and that this, with the rapid population of the United States, their zeal for religion, and love of liberty, would, he trusted, add to the progress of the Christian religion among us (Elliot, 4:200, emp. added).
The Founders were literally walking a tightrope. On the one hand, they did not want to be coercive in the matter of religion. They did not want to cram Christianity down anyone’s throat. They wanted America to be free of religious persecution. On the other hand, they understood that the truthfulness and superiority of the Christian religion was the essential platform on which America’s political institutions were poised. So they assuaged their fears by consoling themselves with the thought that the American people would forever have the good sense to retain Christianity as the central religion of the nation, and that they would refrain from placing in political office anyone who did not share those religious and moral convictions. These early Americans surely would be incredulous, alarmed, and disappointed if they were here to witness the impending possibility of a Muslim being added to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Elliot, Jonathan, ed. (1836), The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Washington, D.C.: Jonathan Elliot), [On-line], URL: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwed.html.
Miller, Dave (2005), “Islam and Early America,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2686.
Teslik, Lee Hudson (2006), “A Muslim for the Hill?” Newsweek, September 13, [On-line], URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14786303/site/newsweek/.