I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had the following conversation: I’ll have just finished speaking to a church or a conference about the vital importance of American religious liberty, and some well-meaning, well-informed questioner will ask earnestly if all my words apply to Islam in the same way they do to Judaism or Christianity. When I say yes, the response is immediate. “But isn’t Islam mainly a political system?” they’ll ask. “Doesn’t Sharia law violate the Constitution?”
There are a remarkable number of Americans — including influential commentators, pastors, and religious leaders — who simply refuse to believe that Islam is a religion. Or, if they believe it’s a religion, they believe the sincere practice of it is antithetical to other American constitutional values. In other words, they believe that Islam and the Constitution simply don’t mix. It’s a belief that’s been circulating in conservative and Christian circles for some time, and now — thanks to writers such as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart and public attacks on Southern Baptist leaders who supported the legal right of Muslims to build a mosque in New Jersey — it’s bursting into the open.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: Non-Muslims have examined an immense and complicated religious community that is even now in the middle of theological and (in many parts of the world) literal civil war, they’ve decided which of the religion’s competing strains is “true Islam,” and they’ve lumped every single Muslim into that single category. Or, at least, they’ve determined that there is sufficient risk that any given Muslim falls into that category to justify curtailing the rights of all Muslims.
It should be obvious that this line of reasoning could have catastrophic consequences for the protection of religious liberty more broadly. Imagine applying it to any other American religious community. Shall we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg define “true Christianity” and then use that definition to limit the rights of all Christians? Moreover, let’s assume for the moment that critics are right, and “true” Islam as practiced is indeed inextricably intertwined with political ideas and goals. Here’s a news flash: Both religious and political activities are protected by the First Amendment. Calling Islam “political” is no more an argument against the First Amendment protections enjoyed by Muslims than calling a church a “club” or a “civic organization” would be an argument against the First Amendment protections enjoyed by Christians. The First Amendment’s protections of free speech and association are, if anything, even broader (as interpreted by the Supreme Court) than its protections of the free exercise of religion.
The critics of Islamic religious freedom misunderstand the nature and extent of the right itself.
In many ways, the critics of Islamic religious freedom misunderstand the nature and extent of the right itself. Religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution has never been construed to mean that the members of any particular religion are exempt from the governing laws of the nation. Faith doesn’t grant anyone the constitutional right to beat their wife, abuse their children, or stone heretics. It doesn’t grant anyone the constitutional right to force other adults to join or belong to any religious, political, or social organization against their will. There are, in other words, existing, constitutionally valid laws that restrict or prevent the adherents of Sharia law from imposing it on unwilling others.
Yet not all arguments for religious liberty are equally persuasive, and many advocates of Muslim religious liberty do more harm than good by misunderstanding both the reality of religious belief and the increasing public impatience with political correctness. For example, it’s simply not persuasive or even correct to try to tell Christians that Muslims are their “natural allies” in the culture wars. It’s not persuasive to tell conservatives how many votes the GOP may be leaving on the table through its opposition to Islam. And it’s definitely not persuasive to argue for Muslim religious liberty by arguing for the virtues of the Muslim faith itself.
As a general matter, sincere religious believers see their faith as the path to God, rather than a path. As a result, the notion that we’re all on the “same team” is flawed in the most substantial and eternal way possible. It’s an illogical and unsustainable belief that’s rebutted by more than a thousand years of competition and outright conflict. So to argue the greatness and virtues of any given faith is to promote an exasperating form of utopian multiculturalism that belies the depth of the very real spiritual differences between faiths.
The virtue of American religious liberty, however, is that the Founders understood the intensity of those differences and created the best form of government for mitigating it: one that allowed for robust competition without permitting government coercion. It is such coercion that snaps the sinews of a multi-faith society, depriving men and women of their inalienable rights, and it’s such coercion that our society was constructed from the ground-up to protect against.
In the American constitutional order, those who are wrong have the same rights as everyone else, though they can’t use their rights to interfere with the rights and liberties of others. Our system of laws can handle jihadist Muslims. Our Constitution is robust enough to repel any call for Sharia law. We don’t have to violate the Constitution to save the Constitution, and you don’t have to compromise your commitment to religious truth to protect the rights of those who disagree.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.