Thomas Jefferson's tombstone, in accordance with his wishes, lists three major accomplishments: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and sponsoring the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which he said was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."
This is a good time to remember Jefferson's sentiments given the rousing ovation a supportive audience gave Donald Trump when he called for barring all Muslims from entering the country. It's a good time to remind the Republican presidential candidate that the U.S. Constitution, echoing Virginia's 1786 statute, forbids Congress from enacting any law that inhibits religious freedom.
It's true that America has never fully achieved the ideal of religious tolerance that its founders envisioned. American history is filled with examples of just the opposite, including Philadelphia's Bible Riots of 1844, in which Protestant mobs burned down the homes of Irish immigrants, destroyed two Catholic churches, and left at least 20 people dead.
But it's been a long time since a presidential candidate spewed religious bigotry. It's a sad commentary on today's Republican Party that Trump, who in earlier comments called for increased surveillance of mosques and a database of Muslims living in this country, is the GOP front-runner in most polls. In fact, it's possible that Trump's call for closing the borders to Muslims was precipitated by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's gaining ground on him in Iowa.
Cruz and Trump are battling for the conservative votes that loom large in Republican primary elections. Cruz has benefited from a recent surge in support from evangelical Christians who appear no longer enamored with Ben Carson. Meanwhile, Trump continues to tap America's worst fears, fears that have grown since last week's terrorist attack left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, Calif.
"Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of the horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life," Trump told an enthusiastic South Carolina crowd.
But a number of other Republicans were quick to denounce Trump's proposed Muslim ban, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said the idea "is not what this party stands for, and, more importantly, it's not what this country stands for." America's allies also criticized Trump. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls pointed out on Twitter that "our only enemy is radical Islam" and that Trump's language "stokes hatred."
President Obama's speech Sunday was rightly panned for not including an effective strategy to defeat ISIS. Obama, however, made an important appeal to treat Muslim Americans as fellow citizens. He asked Muslim leaders to be more vocal in rejecting hateful ideology and urged them to tell authorities when they suspect someone has become radicalized. That approach makes more sense than Trump's. Embracing the Muslim community will yield better results than treating it as a pariah.