Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who’s seeking the Republican nomination for governor, is getting attention for his offensive suggestion that Islam may be a "cult" and, accordingly, that Muslims might not be entitled to protection under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause.

Ramsey’s comment reveals his utter ignorance as to the meaning and application of the free exercise clause: Supreme Court decisions since the 1940s have recognized that one person’s cult is another’s faith: the test the Court uses to determine whether a religion is bona fide is based on the sincerely held belief of its adherents, not on the subjective view that a minority religion is a cult.  However, Ramsey revealed more than his ignorance of constitutional law when he derided the faith of millions of American Muslims: he made clear whose country he believes this is: "Now, you know, I’m all about freedom of religion. I value the First Amendment as much as I value the Second Amendment as much as I value the Tenth Amendment and on and on and on," [Ramsey] said. "But you cross the line when they try to start bringing Sharia Law here to the state of Tennessee — to the United States. We live under our Constitution and they live under our Constitution." (emphasis added)

"We" live under "our" Constitution and "they" live under "our" Constitution, that’s what Lt. Gov. Ramsey told his audience when he was asked about an issue of "national concern": the "threat" of Muslims "invading" our country.  Doesn’t get much clearer than that: there are real Americans, and there are Muslims, who live in the United States under "our" (real Americans’) Constitution.

It might be one thing if one misguided politician in Tennessee spewed this divisive venom, but I don’t believe Ramsey is saying anything outside the mainstream of the Republican party–perhaps he was just a bit more honest than others in this party.  Ramsey is far from the only Republican to appeal to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to divide Americans along religious or racial lines.  Sarah Palin told supporters during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama is "not one of us", that Obama was "palling around with terrorists".  More than 17 Republican members of Congress have questioned whether Obama is a real American, actually born in this country.    Newt Gingrich and others are fanning the flames of hatred by suggesting mosques should be prohibited from certain parts of the United States (one anti-mosque marcher held a sign declaring that "to embrace Islam is to embrace terrorism").

As I have noted, the Republican party has a lot of history to overcome when it comes to exploiting bigotry.  Will someone in the party stand up and declare that Lt. Gov. Ramsey is wrong–American Muslims do not live under "our" non-Muslim Constitution.  We all, all Americans, live under our Constitution — a revered document that applies to all of us, not just those in the majority.  Exploiting fear and anxiety concerning Muslims may seem like a possible way to win an election, but even if the strategy may seem politically attractive, it is morally reprehensible and offensive to the principles that protect all of us.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at commondreams.org

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