American Foundational Values: First Amendment – Religious Freedom
By Imam Talib M. Shareef
Not long after the Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In examining the foundational values upon which our nation was established, we find that at its core, the life that brought the pioneers to America, in search of democracy and religious freedom contains aspirations and ideals that Muslims can accept, identify and share with other Americans. Both, the religion of Al-Islam and America, started with freedom of religion as the first of freedoms. Therefore, the religion of Al-Islam has a natural relationship with American philosophy and with the spirit that is found in the United States Constitution.
The First Amendment is rooted in the fact that from the very beginning there was the fight for religious freedom followed by the fight for all of the other freedoms. Realizing that mankind was created to have independence and freedom of worship, Pilgrims came to these lands because they were persecuted and couldn’t exercise their religious rights in Europe. So, they came here to start their lives anew with the opportunity to live their Christianity to their choosing, without hindrance and denial from the governments they fled. In doing so they wanted that to be the standard for all in the new democracy, to include for Muslims as noted by President Obama in his address during his first visit to an American Mosque. He said,” Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions. Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths -- and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now -- “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.”
We find these core values expressed from many during the course of American history. One of the many, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said in a speech to Congress that religious freedom “is the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, everywhere in the world.”
During President Obama’s same address at the America Mosque, he also states that, “In 1957, when dedicating the Islamic center in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower said, “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution … and in American hearts…this place of worship, is just as welcome…as any other religion.”
Many among the founding fathers of this great nation and those connected with their struggle for independence and freedom of religious expression, were guided by universal aspirations to establish spiritual life as the life for the betterment of society. So, that society could exist, have a good future and progress in the matter ordained for it by the Creator. This idea of the Creator is highlighted in the foundational documents that the First Amendment is upon and is in the
language of the Founding Fathers: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator...." Here in the language of the Founding Fathers is the recognition of Almighty God as the Creator and a recognition that all men as having inalienable rights that the government can't give to them. They acknowledged that all were created with those rights, inalienable rights, among these, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
These are statements of strong faith and allegiance to God and underscores how the First Amendment was meant to be interpreted in terms of religious freedom for all religious communities and people of faith. In the language of the founding fathers was the building of an idea that would connect man to Almighty God; and it would insist government recognize that connection that they, the government, didn’t make and cannot break. Essentially, they were forcing government to recognize that connection and treat all citizens as the creation of Almighty God, the Creator. This idea is at the core of what makes America the beautiful. This idea of a government, a society that acknowledges that there is a Superior Authority other than man and that people are accountable to that authority, their Creator, who gave them their life, is what establishes a true democracy.
It’s consistent with what Muslims believe which is that Almighty God is the Creator of everything. It was intentional that the founders gave acknowledgement to “the Creator,” rather than used a specific or proper name. In the history of Al-Islam, when Muhammad (pbuh) received the first words of revelation, the name Allah (swt) was not mentioned. Almighty God introduced Himself to Muhammad (pbuh), firstly, as the Creator, although the name Allah came later. Herein is the wisdom also of the founders in their use of “Creator”. By reasoning, they concluded that every Religion that recognizes Almighty G-d, “the Creator,” as the One Who is responsible for what we see in the skies, for the earth that we live on and whatever comes out of the earth and is responsible for man's own existence, that those Religions can live and co-exist together. But not only live together, those religions can work together, have mutual respect for and cooperate with one another for the future of humanity; because that is the precious idea that makes it possible for us to progress with our human life in society.
George Washington stated in his first Inaugural address, “We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.
So, America recognizes that, that is the beauty and strength of our Constitution and what holds our society together. Imam W. Deen Mohammed, in an address to a Muslim American Military Conference in Washington, D.C., said, “…this country gives us more religious freedom than most of our own Islamic nations or countries, but we have to soberly in the mind see these facts and realities, and register and appreciate them.” “.. If we can recognize these realities, this change, and heal ourselves, and embrace the good, and embrace the progress, and embrace the good aims and good purposes for which this nation was envisioned or created by its founding fathers, and how the spirit and language that they left with us has gained support,..Then we are in a good situation to make progress in this society. Imam Mohammed was asked, “how do I serve my country?” His answer, “I serve my country as a citizen of this country, as a believer in Almighty God.