Wednesday, July 27, 2011
July 27, 2011: WWJD?
It has often and accurately been noted of the Bible that it can be quoted in support of just about any position and argument, a fact borne out nicely by the history of a nation in which various communities have indeed quoted the Bible for and against the institution of slavery, for and against the removal and even destruction of Native American communities standing in the way of national expansion, for and against the KKK’s brutal terrorizing of post-bellum African Americans, for and against the extension to gay Americans of the legal right to marry, and so on. Yet at least as prominent in our national conversations, and of far more specific salience to our unique national identity, is our similarly impressive ability to marshal quotes from the Founding Fathers in support of virtually any position on any issue. Not only did most of those guys write a ton (literally), but they did so over in most cases long and varied careers in which their perspectives and ideas changed significantly and sometimes entirely.
For that reason, the contemporary game—one played most consistently at the moment, in my experience, by folks in the Tea Party, but certainly with players from a variety of other places on the political and cultural spectrum as well—of “What Would Jefferson [or any other Founder] Do?” is far more likely to tell us about the perspective of the player than about our third president. Yet while such selective quoting and referencing of the Founding Fathers is thus perhaps a largely a-historical exercise, that of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t value and meaning to studying and engaging with what they had to say; not just in order to better understand them and their era, but also, if cautiously, to think about how their voices and ideas—and especially the nation whose government and political identity they helped create—are relevant to our own moment and debates. It was at least partly to that end, for example, that I wrote my December 3rd post on the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions drafted by Jefferson and Madison in response to them; my first interest there was in portraying the historical situation and issues and ideas with complexity and accuracy, but I will freely admit that I hoped (as I do in most every post) that there would likewise be contemporary and ongoing relevance to those focal points (although luckily that relevance is not for any one person, including me, to determine with any finality).
Sometimes, on some issues, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to tease out what any given individual Founder might have believed, much less what that disparate and often divided community of Americans did. And sometimes it’s not. When it comes to the question of whether Muslims might have a place not only in the new United States but in American political life—a question that is at least parallel to the issue of who is and is not American with which I engaged yesterday—the Founders were very consistent and overt in their support for such a place. As the great article at the first link notes (among the many sources its author marshals for this position), during the debates over ratifying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a North Carolina Baptist argued explicitly that “As there are no religious tests, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain office”; in response, a Provincial Congressman from that state countered precisely that “in the course of four or five hundred years I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.” Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an and authored America’s first act for establishing religious freedom (linked below) in order to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and the Infidel,” would certainly have agreed.
We shouldn’t need the validation of the Founders in order to argue for any position, much less a crucial one such as the full inclusion of every American in our political, social, and cultural life; it was precisely with an awareness of a society’s inevitable (and necessary) changes that the Framers created an amendment process for the Constitution, among other such safeguards. But if you’re going to argue that religious—like racial and ethnic and cultural and communal—acceptance and interconnectedness are founding American values, as I would and do, it doesn’t hurt to have TJ and friends on your side. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) An excellent brief article on the Founders and Islam: http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/the_founding_fathers_and_islam
2) Jefferson’s “Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” (1786): http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/vaact.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?