Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright recently announced her intention to “register as Muslim” if President Trump pursues any executive action (or if the Republicans in Congress pass a law) to force Muslims to register in a database (something President Trump insisted he would endorse during the campaign). Of course, we all ought to so register if any such law passes. But I think it’s important that we all understand that such a bill (or executive order) would be so nakedly unconstitutional, such a blatant violation of all our values and traditions, that we couldn’t even call ourselves American anymore if it passed.
I also happen to believe that the courts would strike such a law down immediately. That said, it’s apparently time for a civics lesson.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the United States is freedom of conscience (embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution, inspired by the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom), which means that our religious convictions and practices have no implications for our civil rights. Or, to put it another way, our civic and political rights are not in any way affected (either abridged or enhanced) by what we believe about God or whether we choose to affiliate with a particular church, sect, or faith community.
This is not a small matter. It is precisely why we don’t kill each other in the streets over our religious differences, because they have no political consequences whatsoever. It doesn’t mean that we agree with each other about matters of faith. But it does mean that we have the civic space to persuade each other, and be persuaded in turn. It means that we never have to choose between our conscience and our patriotism.
Unlike many countries in the world that distribute (and vary) rights on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious characteristics, the United States practices civic nationalism; our rights as citizens are rooted in our citizenship itself. What unites us is our adherence to basic civic values rooted in our Constitution, one of the most fundamental of which is religious freedom. So when President Trump vows to register Muslims, all our traditions and laws shout against it. What our laws and traditions see is not Muslims and Christians and agnostics and atheists and Hindus and Jews; our laws and traditions see American citizens enjoying that most American of rights, freedom of conscience.
We ought to thank God that we live in a country where this is so — it is not so everywhere and has not been so for most of human history. And where there is no freedom of conscience, there is dissension, and violence, and war over religion.
So, yes, by all means let us all register as Muslim if it comes to that. But before it does, let us fight against any hint of such a registry and denounce it as the deepest kind of violation of all our values and traditions — not to mention our Constitution — as long as there is a United States of America. For without freedom of conscience there might be a United States, but there will no longer be an America.
One final note: When Jefferson wrote the bill for religious freedom and Madison guided it through the Virginia legislature, its most enthusiastic supporters were evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, whose liberty to practice their faith, to pursue their religious convictions, was hampered by the Episcopal establishment in Virginia. All evangelicals, as the first beneficiaries of freedom of conscience, should, in solidarity with any whose religious liberty is threatened, insist that their senators and representatives reject any move that even remotely bears any resemblance to this suggestion of a registry, and they should march in the streets against it, and go to jail to defend freedom of conscience. Because freedom of conscience is America.
Brian Steele is an associate professor of history at UAB, specializing in the American Revolution and the early republic. His first book, Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (Cambridge, 2012) was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize and is now out in paperback. Send your Perspectives op-ed submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.