The response holds up religious liberty as a sacred right, perhaps the sacred right, at the heart of the nation’s identity.
But this story glosses over the history of religious intolerance that is as American as apple pie. What’s more, it misunderstands how profoundly the nation’s religious story is interwoven with our racial history. To put it simply: it’s hard to imagine that Trump’s suggestion would be supported by such a large segment of likely GOP primary voters if the vast majority of American (or immigrating) Muslims were considered white.
The two categories of race and religion are profoundly wound around each other in American political history. An emerging body of scholarship refers to this as the historical “intersectionality” of race and religion.
Religious tolerance developed slowly, and only for some
Despite what we learned in our high school civics classes, in American political history the principle of religious freedom came slowly. Early settler-colonists were keen on having the right to practice their own religions — but many were loathe to extend that right to others, especially racial others. Puritans gladly expelled or persecuted “dissidents” of European origin, such as Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, and of course “witches.” Nearly all of the colonies had religious qualification tests for voting, citizenship or property ownership. Nearly all levied taxes to support the dominant church. And nearly all persecuted religious minorities, sometimes violently.
The Constitution itself is a God-free document by design. But as historian Steven Waldman has pointed out, when leaders like Jefferson, Madison and Franklin proposed robust religious tolerance for more people than Christians, or even just beyond white Protestants, most colonists found the notion foreign and even radical.
After vigorous debate, most colonial delegates to the Constitutional Convention ultimately supported the First Amendment’s religion clauses. But that’s because the amendment limited the federal government’s power over the states’ established religions. It’s not because the founders intended to embrace religious liberty for all.
Religious tests of different forms existed in many states until the courts began to apply the Bill of Rights to all citizens through the doctrine of incorporation after 1925, eventually rendering establishmentarian state laws unconstitutional.
Racial intolerance limited religious freedoms
Between the colonial era and the signing of the Constitution, white Americans fought among themselves over which Christian denominations were the appropriate religions for this New World, and which (say, Quakers or Catholics) were too foreign to be accepted. But well into the mid-19th century, white majorities treated religious racial minorities — that is, nonwhites who were also not Christian — as so “other” that they had no right to practice their own religions freely.
Early American Muslims (most of whom came to the United States as enslaved Africans, though a few were free) were likewise perceived as “heathen” and often forced by slaveholders or church leaders to convert to Christianity.
In the 19th century, American nativism framed the Chinese as a “pagan race,” subject to surveillance and immigration restrictions.
And in the famous 1923 Thind case, a “high-caste Hindu” who had applied for naturalization was denied when the Supreme Court unanimously decided that as an Indian Hindu he could not qualify as a “free white person” under the Naturalization Act of 1906. His racial status was defined, ambiguously, through his religious and perceived racial difference simultaneously. (For more systematic detail on the othering of religious racial minorities, see Juan Cole’s post.)
Not all early American whites or Christians were racist. Christian abolitionists fought slavery. Across American history, diametrically opposed interpretations of Christianity were used both to enforce and to challenge American slavery and Jim Crow laws, as I explored in my chapter here.
But the nation’s racial project of extending European civilization to a dark continent — our so-called Manifest Destiny — was fueled by white Christians who believed the religious practices of people considered nonwhite (including Irish Catholics and Jews in the early 19th century) could not be assimiliated.
So is Trump defiling or extending a sacred American tradition when he threatens a ban on Muslims? On Monday, former vice president Richard B. Cheney joined the critics condemning Trump. But he slipped when he said:
[R]eligious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from. A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans. There wasn’t anybody here when they came.
Cheney’s verbal erasure of Native nations, who were systematically slaughtered in the name of a state-sponsored religious, cultural and racial mission, illustrates a broader cultural habit of willfully ignoring our long and essential tradition of religious intolerance and persecution.
We default to a distinctly American amnesia when we (1) assert a clean tradition of religious liberty that never existed, and (2) conceive the nation’s religious history in isolation from our racial history.
But this is the precise place where most American Muslims sit: religious minorities who are also racial minorities in a highly racialized nation. As recently as this past September, 29 percent of Americans and 45 percent of Republicans still said they thought Barack Obama was a Muslim.
In a context of so much suspicion, framing Obama — and now ordinary American Muslims — as both racial and religious others is politically effective. Even as president of the United States, Obama had to position himself in the Christian mainstream to deflate this misperception. But that positioning does little to promote religious liberty or racial equality, and is not an option for Muslim Americans or new immigrants.
Over time, religious liberty has become folded into our national consensus, as political leaders are rightly reminding the populace. But Trump’s comments are not a fresh and un-American demagoguery. They draw upon a history of religious and racial persecution that is as old as our Constitution.
Nancy D. Wadsworth is associate professor of political science at the University of Denver and author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing.