A Muslim in the House advances religious freedom

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., doesn’t want to be known as the “Muslim representative.” But even before he took the oath of office this week, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress was already a symbol of hope — and a source of controversy.

For American Muslims, Ellison is a welcome sign of inclusion at a time when many are made to feel like outsiders in their own country. Much like the election of the first Roman Catholic president in 1960, Ellison’s election breaks new ground in the ongoing struggle to level the playing field for all Americans.

Of course, not everyone is cheering. In a letter to constituents last month, Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., described Ellison as “the Muslim Representative from Minnesota” and warned that unless Americans “wake up” and do something about immigration many more Muslims will come to this country — and, worse yet, get elected to public office.

Beyond the fact that Ellison is not an immigrant (like some 40% of America’s 6 million Muslims, Ellison is an African-American and his family has been here for centuries), Goode’s conviction that Muslim immigration to the United States is a threat to our traditional “values and beliefs” is bigoted and un-American.

Sadly, Goode is not alone. Since 9/11 the right-wing blogosphere has been filled with rants against Islam and warnings that Muslims can’t be “real Americans.”

Now Ellison’s election has provoked a new round of outrage, especially after he made known his plan to put his hand on the Quran during his photo-op swearing-in ceremony with the speaker of the House. (The actual oath is taken collectively on the floor of the House and no scripture is involved.) For his individual ritual, Ellison requested Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran from the Library of Congress.

The fear and trembling surrounding Ellison’s election to Congress (and the growing Muslim population in the U.S.) resembles the anti-Catholic nativism of our early history. “A free government and the Roman Catholic religion,” wrote John Adams in 1821, “can never exist together in any nation or Country.”

The rising tide of Catholic immigration in the 19th century stirred widespread fears among Protestants that Catholics might take political control and infect America with antidemocratic ideas. Anti-Catholic propaganda fueled efforts to limit Catholic immigration — and sparked mob attacks on Catholic churches and schools.

But American Muslims, take heart. Today, Roman Catholics make up nearly a fourth of the American population (and 28% of the Congress). Beyond the fringe, no one any longer sees Catholics as a threat to American “values and beliefs.”

The lesson of American history is that religious freedom requires more than constitutional protection — as vital and necessary as that is. Although the Constitution declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office,” prejudice still keeps people of minority faiths (and of no faith) from winning elections. And although the First Amendment promises “no establishment,” some members of the majority faith still push for a semi-established “Christian nation.”

That’s why religious diversity (including diversity among Protestants) is critical for religious freedom. As James Madison explained in 1788: “Religious freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”

Let’s pause, then, to salute that much-maligned concept, “diversity.” Far from being a threat to American values, the religious diversity of immigrants has moved us closer to realizing our ideals. Only as waves of Catholics, Jews, Muslims and others have arrived to become citizens has our nation been forced to live up to what we agreed to in the first place.

What could be more American than the moment Keith Ellison puts his hand on the Quran and swears to uphold the Constitution — and thereby swears by all that he holds sacred to uphold religious freedom for everyone? That’s a photo we should send around the world because that’s a picture of America at its best.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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