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Shootings at Sikh Temple Test the Founding Faith of America | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Shootings at Sikh Temple Test the Founding Faith of America


A woman reacts with others as they await word on a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sunday, August 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

President Obama echoed the sentiments of the essential founder of the American experiment in his response to Sunday’s horrific killings at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

“As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship,” said Obama, as the nation learned of a shoooting spree by an alleged white supremacist at a place of worship in suburban Milwaukee, “we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.”

That notion of the Sikh community as “part of our broad American family” is not a new one. Sikhs have been a part of the American religious fabric for the better part of two centuries.

The members of this religion, which preaches tolerance and places high emphasis on the protection of the religious and political rights of all people, fit comfortably within the Jeffersonian ideal of religious diversity and regard for genuine religious freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, who knew that the essential protection of religious freedom involved a national commitment to guard against threats to worshipers, would surely have been aghast at the level or hatred and violence that has been directed at the roughly 500,000 American Sikhs in recent years. Though the Sikh faith is the fifth-largest religion in the world, its followers are sometimes confused for Muslims and targeted with the same sorts of discrimination and violence that has afflicted followers of Islam. Since September 11, 2001, the Sikh Coalition, the largest civil rights group for Sikhs in the United States, says it has received thousands of requests for assistance from members of the Sikh community related to employment discrimination, hate crimes and school bullying. That this violence has now shaken not just one community or state but the nation should be recognized as a particular affront to the ideals espoused by Jefferson—and to the hopes of the most enlightened founders.

Jefferson’s gravestone makes no mention of his service as the nation’s first secretary of state, second vice president or third president. But it does, at Jefferson’s behest, recount that he was “author…of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom.”

Jefferson never wanted there to be any doubt that religious freedom extended to those of all faiths, and that the essence of that freedom was the liberty to worship without threats or fear of violence of the sort that on Sunday left seven dead (included the white male shooter, who has since been identified as an Army veteran with ties to the white supremacist movement) at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.

In the Virginia stature that would serve as the underpinning for the constitutional protection of religious freedom, Jefferson wrote: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

In Jefferson’s autobiography (still the finest record of the influence of Enlightenment thinking on the founders), which the founder penned decades after the debates that established religious tolerance first in Virginia and then as an essential component of the federal Constitution, he was specific about the original intent of the protections that he fought to establish.

“The bill for establishing religious freedom. I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal,” wrote Jefferson. “Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’ The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

As Americans mourn the killings at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, it is vital to remember the real history of religious freedom in America.

And to embrace it.

This is about something very different from the cheap sloganeering of those who would blur lines of separation between church and state and use the promise of freedom to worship as an excuse to discriminate against others. The vision advanced today by right-wing politicians—who cloak themselves in a Constitution they do not seem to have read very closely—often imagines America as “a Christian nation.” But that characterization is at odds with the ideal of the founders, who enacted religious freedom protections “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of [their] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Jefferson was fascinated by the great religions of the world. He was not just aware of them. He searched out copies of the holy texts of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and other religions, and he consulted them when preparing core documents of the American experiment. He and the most enlightened of his comrades wanted America to protect and welcome the practitioners of those faiths.

Of course, Jefferson wanted future American presidents and political leaders to share his recognition that the “wall of separation” between church and state was designed to prevent favoritism for one doctrine or faith over another.

But he also wanted America to be a welcoming place for the followers of all faiths. And he wanted the believers in Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians and, yes, Sikhs to be safe from threats and violence.

The United States still needs to achieve the “religious freedom” that Jefferson outlined at the founding of the republic. President Obama responded appropriately to the initial shock of Sunday’s shootings, as did a number of other political leaders. But Obama should do more, especially now that the shooter has been linked with the white supremacist movement and so-called “white power” bands. There is a gun debate to be had. There is a tolerance debate to be had. There are real questions to be asked and answered about how a nation responds to hatred and the violence it breeds.

Obama should lead that debate. But the responsibility surely is not his alone. Others in positions of leadership (particularly those from the so-called “religious right” wing of the Republican Party) should do much more, to educate a changing nation about the necessity of tolerance and to celebrate America’s rapidly expanding religious diversity.

Contemporary leaders, who so frequently fancy themselves to be heirs to the best of the founding tradition, must provide far greater leadership when it comes to assuring that people of faith, of every faith, shall not “suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” That leadership will not attack the separation of church and state, nor favor one doctrine above another. It will recognize, finally and unequivocally, that all “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

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