Opinion | Muftic: Thank the Pilgrims who began America’s quest for religious freedom
This Thanksgiving we should give our thanks to the Pilgrims who have become an icon of what made the New World so unique in the civilizations that preceded them. They left England and the Old World to seek freedom to practice their own religion, separated from a government-backed state religion that oppressed them. It was a beginning. There was a rocky road ahead to laws guaranteeing religious freedom for everyone, not just one group.
Some colonies adopted laws with limited forms of freedom of religion while others established state sponsored religions, hung heretics, and launched witch hunts. Pennsylvania and Virginia had enacted their own laws effectively protecting freedom of religion. The Constitution authors adopted those concepts in the First Amendment,: “Congress shalll make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Congress later passed civil rights and hate crimes legislation that protected religious practitioners and punished those who interfered with their practice.
So disconcerting in 2018 is that many seem to have forgotten the lessons leaned from experience, traditions, and history. So heartening in the 2018 midterms is that many more Americans rejected an Oval Office leadership condoning and even promoting hate and fear of “others,” including Donald Trump’s attempted immigration ban of anyone who was a Muslim.
In 2016 this country had given the reins of power to Donald Trump whose soaring oratory appealed to the worst of human nature. He set the example. It was all right to be uncivil, no longer to be politically correct, to denigrate and disrespect “others,” especially people of color and women, and to express such feelings publicly. His inflammatory words have continued in rallies and tweets to this day.
While protected by the Constitution, words of hate have deadly consequences. That was brought home shortly before the 2018 midterms by the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre. While Donald Trump did not target his hateful words toward the Jewish community, he tolerated and promoted intolerance. Our President opined about the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017 that there some were “fine people” among them. The tiki torch bearing marchers shouted anti-Semitic slogans in German while raising arms in the Nazi salute.
An atmosphere of permissive hatred does not confine itself to specific targets. It is infectious and even if originally unintended, it can spread to harm other targets, including religious ones. In 2017, the year after the election of Trump, the FBI reported a 37 percent spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes over 2016, and the Anti-Defamation League found the number of anti-Semitic incidents, mostly vandalism, was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record.
Alt-right conspiracy theorists and Trump friendly media inspired the Pittsburgh synagogue killer. The shooter posted on his social media that a Jewish immigration group was bringing in immigrants to kill “his people.” Reviving references to the international Jewish conspiracy theories, other alt right proponents claimed a wealthy liberal Jewish-American-immigrant philanthropist, George Soros, was funding the “caravans” of central Americans storming our southern border. Numerous fact checkers found that false. Others before had claimed Soros paid “mobs” of women protesting the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Fact checkers: Soros paid none of the demonstrators. Last week in Baltimore, attendees of the performance of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical about Russian persecution of Jews, were still on edge from the mass killing in Pittsburgh. They panicked when a man in the audience shouted, “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump,” fearing it signaled another anti-Semitic mass murder attack. Fortunately, no one was hurt running to the exits. The man apologized later, said he was trying to compare Trump to Hitler but said it the wrong way, and he had been drinking before the performance. He claimed protection of free speech. Note: The Supreme Court ruled many years ago shouting fire in a crowded theater is not protected speech.
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