Politics & Policy

How Obama Gets Our First Principles Wrong

The First Amendment limits the federal government, not freelance morons.

To “burn the sacred texts of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for,” lectured Pres. Barack Obama at last week’s press conference. “It’s contrary to what this country — this nation — was founded on.”

It is always a precious sight when the president, a self-styled agent of “fundamental change” who is distinctly out of sympathy with the American founding philosophy, invokes our country’s first principles. True to form, Obama’s admonition is sweet sounding and wrong. In fact, American tradition would be transgressed by government’s burning of sacred texts — or, analogously, by government’s demanding that a religious community bring its creed into conformity with current ruling-class pieties (sound familiar?).

It is the very notion of the central government’s involvement in religious matters that runs afoul of our founding principles. To the contrary, our tradition has always relied upon the private examination and criticism of religious belief systems. It would have been unseemly for Terry Jones, the obscure pastor of a microscopic Florida flock, to stage his Koran-torching exhibition. But such a display would plainly have been protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and would have been within our norms, which respect religious belief but do not hold it immune from examination — the same norms that call on Christians to grit their teeth and bear such desecrations as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”

Reasoned examination is far more basic to what this country stands for than is any trumped-up standard against defiling religious texts. The most trenchant argument against Jones was to be found in this American tradition of private criticism: The Christian pastor’s plan was un-Christian, not un-American. It crossed the line from the socially tolerable berating of a competing doctrine into the intentional insulting of Muslims. It defied common sense, which says that even if we are not responsible for the tinderbox Islamists have made of our world, we shouldn’t — absent good reason — give them a pretext to riot and kill.

Freedom means allowing stupid people to do stupid but legal things without government interference. Self-determination means having faith in the capability of free people to dissuade bad behavior and, if they can’t prevent it, to contain it, or even rise above it in a way that underscores the value of freedom.

It is an oft-repeated and quite valid complaint of Americans that most Muslims are unwilling to offer full-throated, unconditional, unambiguous condemnation of terrorism. There is a reason for their reluctance: They are not free. Sharia, the authoritarian system of Islamic law that Muslims are expected to follow, severely discourages Muslims from sowing discord within their community. Rank-and-file Muslims are consequently inhibited in expressing dissent when jihadists portray themselves as “fighting in Allah’s cause” — a condition aggravated by the penchant of Muslim community leaders to blame atrocities not on the jihadists but on American policies that purportedly “humiliate” the jihadists into acting. Even if ordinary Muslims are repulsed by the terrorists, sharia and its executors intimidate them into silence.

Contrast the Muslim world’s reaction to terrorist bloodbaths with the U.S. reaction to the Reverend Jones and his offensive, but certainly far short of murderous, publicity stunt. Could members of our body politic, from those of high profile to the most average Americans, have tripped over themselves any faster to condemn Jones? It was a moment to be proud of. And it required no government and no finger-wagging commander-in-chief to show us the way. Americans freely elect a government to reflect what we think, not to tell us what to think.

What betrays American tradition is the federal government’s establishment of a state religion. What violates our principles is the federal government’s interference with the free exercise of one’s religious beliefs.

It was a good deal more un-American for our federal thought police to browbeat the pastor than for the pastor to threaten a Koran barbeque. Don’t think so? Ask yourself what the New York Times would say if the FBI had instead been dispatched to discourage a university professor from burning the American flag.

If you are worried about the principles of the Founding, you are right to be. The First Amendment is about thwarting an authoritarian government, not policing how we argue with each other. Where was this grave concern about what this country stands for when the State Department wrote new constitutions for Iraq and Afghanistan that establish Islam as the state religion and impose sharia — a creed that, in Muslim countries, stifles freedom of conscience and the freedom to exercise religions other than Islam?

There is a government that makes it official policy to “burn the sacred tests of someone else’s religion.” It is Saudi Arabia, which regularly torches Bibles and other non-Muslim religious texts. President Obama is not hectoring Saudi sheikhs; he is about to provide them with $60 billion worth of advanced military arms, the better to protect their sharia state.

Egypt is a repressive regime in good standing among the repressive regimes of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Last October, it jointly sponsored a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council, an international sharia redoubt. It would require all countries to “take effective measures” that prohibit “any advocacy of . . .  religious hatred” that could incite “hostility” — which is to say, it demands that countries enact and enforce laws that bar criticism of Islam. Who was the Mubarak regime’s co-sponsor? The Obama administration.

Somehow, on that one, our smooth-talking president seems to have lost his voice on the matter of “what this country stands for.”

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.

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