Donald Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from entering the country was widely recognized as an appeal for explicit religious discrimination and generated significant pushback. But many of Trump’s right-wing defenders have turned to an argument that has long bounced around Religious Right circles: that Muslims are not entitled to the religious liberty protections of the First Amendment because Islam is somehow not a religion. A few years ago, for example, retired Lt. Gen Jerry Boykin called Islam “a totalitarian way of life” that “should not be protected under the First Amendment.”
At this week’s Republican presidential debate, Rick Santorum explained why he believes Islam is not protected under the First Amendment, an argument made repeatedly by the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer. Here’s Santorum:
The fact of the matter is, Islam is different. I know this is going to come as a shock to a lot of people, and I mean this sincerely. Islam is not just a religion. It is also a political governing structure. The fact of the matter is, Islam is a religion, but it is also Sharia law, it is also a civil government, it is also a form of government. And, so, the idea that that is protected under the First Amendment is wrong.
Conservative columnist and radio host Andrew McCarthy has similarly defended Trump’s comments, saying that Islam is not merely a religion because it “has ambitions to be more than a religion, that is to say that it is an ideological, sweeping system that does not recognize a division between spiritual life on the one hand and political and civic life on the other.”
Back in September, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins defended similar comments by Ben Carson:
“Religious freedom and our liberty is ordered liberty under the Constitution,” Perkins said. “And as Dr. Caron pointed out, and I know this is driving the left crazy, that Islam is not just a religion, Islam is an economic system, it is a judicial system, it is a compressive system which is incompatible with the Constitution. That’s what Dr. Carson said and he happens to be correct.”
More recently, Perkins defended Trump with a dubiously specific statistic, saying that “only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic and political system.” Televangelist Pat Robertson also said this month that people should not view Islam as a religion but rather a “political system masquerading as a religion.”
Wait a minute. Aren’t these the same people who repeatedly insist that the Bible is the final authority on everything, from laws regulating personal relationships to economic and tax policy, and environmental protection? Anti-marriage-equality activists have insisted that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling was in violation of “God’s law” and therefore “illegitimate.”
David Barton, an oft-discredited “historian” and Republican Party activist who is currently heading up a Ted Cruz super PAC, argues that the Bible opposes minimum wage laws, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, any progressive form of taxation and even net neutrality. He says the Constitution came right out of the Bible. If you applied Tony Perkins’ calculations to David Barton’s Bible, what percentage would come up as religion?
Many Religious Right leaders have embraced Seven Mountains dominionism, which is grounded in the belief that the right kind of Bible-believing Christians are meant to control all the important spheres of culture, including government, business, education, and entertainment. For example, the American Pastors Network’s Sam Rohrer says this:
Government leaders are charged with wielding the Word of God as an instrument of Justice, promoting God’s moral law as the foundation of right and wrong, encouraging those who do well biblically, and executing judgment on those who break the law.
Along those lines, three Republican presidential candidates, including current Iowa frontrunner Ted Cruz, recently joined a “religious freedom” rally organized by a pastor who argues that the Bible requires the government to execute gay people.
And don’t forget David Lane, whose American Renewal Project is mobilizing conservative pastors to get more involved in politics — and who argues that America was founded for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith, and that the Bible should be a primary textbook in public schools.
So, a thought for Religious Right leaders: If you are going to argue for stripping Muslims of their First Amendment religious liberty protections based on your interpretation of Islam as an enterprise that is more political and ideological than religious, you may have to trim your own political sails quite a bit. Either that, or quit pretending you are proponents of religious freedom, and admit that you, like Bryan Fischer, believe the First Amendment applies only to Christians, or, like Tony Perkins, that gay-supporting Christians don’t deserve the same legal protections because a “true religious freedom” has to “come forth from religious orthodoxy.” Just don’t try to pretend your definition of “religious freedom” owes anything to Thomas Jefferson or the First Amendment.