This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 4: Islam and the Founding Fathers
Let’s move from Spanish-speaking America to English-speaking America. The religious worldview of the English colonists and their American-born descendants was driven mostly by memories of the Protestant-Catholic conflict that dominated much of British history. Unlike the Spanish, the English had never had to confront a threat of Islamic conquest or homeland security concerns over conquered Muslim populations. The English view of Islam at that time was, I think, more remote and more academic, influenced mostly by business transactions with Ottoman traders, and concern over Barbary pirates threatening British shipping in the Mediterranean. (More on that in a moment.)
Looking backward at the religious wars of Europe, and looking around at the wide variety of Christian denominations in colonial America (many of them established as state religions), and concerned over interstate religious rivalries and possible attempts to establish a federal religion at the expense of all others, the Framers of the Constitution were no-kidding serious when they said that there would be no religious tests for federal offices and later added the 1stamendment prohibition against federal laws concerning religion. There’s no mention of Jesus, or God, in the Constitution, but the Founders could quite easily have established America as an exclusively Christian democracy had they wanted to.
A great many Christian apologists (and notorious pseudo-historians like David Barton) have repeated claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, or that even if it weren’t explicitly so the Framers implicitly understood American culture as Christian, and that they intended American government to be inclusive only to various flavors of Christianity, at least Protestant Christianity. But is any of this true?
As we’ll see, the Founders and Framers often cast a very wide net when describing their conceptions of religious liberty, and often used Muslims (variously described by antique or inaccurate terms like “Mahometans, Mohammedans, Musselmen, Moors, Turks, infidels, muftis,” etc.) as examples of people who would definitely fall under the protection of—and even be allowed full participation in—the American system.
In 1739, Benjamin Franklin praised the construction of a facility in Philadelphia intended as a meeting place for all religions. He wrote “Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
In 1765, Thomas Jefferson bought an English-translation copy of the Quran (he would own more than one during his lifetime). As we heard earlier, one of those copies made it into the collection of the Library of Congress.
In 1784, George Washington responded to a letter asking what kind of workmen he wanted at Mt. Vernon, writing, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”
In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, became law. Jefferson was especially pleased that the House of Delegates had rejected an amendment to add “Jesus Christ” to this otherwise denominationally neutral bill. Jefferson confirmed that this new law “meant to comprehend, within its mantle of protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.”
John Leland, a Baptist minister and ardent supporter of universal religious liberty, wrote in 1790: “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” (I should pause here to note the irony of a 18th century Baptist advocating for absolute religious liberty and for the separation of church and state. How far his 21st century brethren have drifted away from their roots.)
Finally, it should be noted that In the history of the American Revolution, a few names appear that are obviously Muslim or show Islamic influence, including “Yusuf Ben Ali” and “Bampett Muhamad.”