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(published at Truthout.org)
Memorial Day, observed since the end of the Civil War, is a day that we honor the soldiers who have fallen in the service of their country. As a veteran, I can think of no other way that better epitomizes what it means to be an American than to honor those who died for our country. But Memorial Day is more than simply a day for honoring our fallen soldiers; it is also about remembering the ideals for which they gave their lives.
Right-wing pundits and politicians have tossed out the term “un-American” for decades, but in case you think they have cornered the market on the term “un-American,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Hoyer recently used it when they wrote about the health care reform protests. They wrote, “Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”
The term “un-American” has been used so often, and so casually, that it is a wonder anyone remembers what being an American actually means. Our Constitution codifies how our government functions, and the Bill of Rights enumerates the most basic of rights guaranteed to all American citizens. Alone, they don’t portray the vision, hopes and fears that guided our founding fathers. One must also read the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and other writings in order to gain a true picture of what our founders considered to be American values.
Since 1776, we have worked as a nation to make the ideal that all men are created equal a reality. We abolished slavery. We worked for the equal rights of African-Americans and women. We are now fighting for the equal rights of gays and lesbians. In his autobiography, Pat Buchanan wrote: “Someone’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours? Whose country is it, anyway? Whose moral code says we may interfere with a man’s right to be a practicing bigot, but must respect and protect his right to be a practicing sodomite?” It is precisely that sentiment we have worked to undo.
In Federalist Paper #84, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. ‘WE, THE PEOPLE of the United States, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ORDAIN and ESTABLISH this Constitution for the United States of America.’ Here is a better recognition of popular rights, than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principal figure in several of our State bills of rights, and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.” In this phrase, Alexander Hamilton argued that all Americans hold all rights. Yet we continually have to re-address the issue of who has what rights and who doesn’t, and whose moral code is superior over other persons.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'” The ideal that our government should avoid regulating religious worship was a genuine and articulated concern for our founding fathers.
However, this fear hasn’t kept people in government from denying others their right to worship as they please. In 2002, in Morton Grove, Illinois, Muslim leaders asked to be able to build a mosque on the school grounds of the Muslim Education Center. The plan was denied by the city council, but opponents still sued the city trying to get the building of mosques banned. Given the anti-Muslim sentiment at the time, the statement released by Ted Hadley, the lawyer for the city, was laughable. He stated, “The vast majority of people in Morton Grove aren’t bigoted, and they don’t like the way their village is coming across.”
In 2002, trustees of a small mosque in Marietta, Georgia, petitioned the local zoning board for a new mosque. The board denied the request. Board member W.O. Wilkerson, one of only two board members who voted to approve the mosque, stated, “It was voted against purely because they were Muslims. The neighbors … said they didn’t want Muslims in the neighborhood. … If we’re going to talk about having a country of laws, we better live by that.”
An unknown writer, whose letter was published in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer in 1887, wrote in part, “The more I reflect upon the history of mankind, the more I am disposed to think that it is our duty to secure the essential rights of the people, by every precaution; for not an avenue has been left unguarded, through which oppression could possibly enter in any government; without some enemy of the public peace and happiness improving the opportunity to break in upon the liberties of the people; and none have been more frequently successful in the attempt, than those who have covered their ambitious designs under the garb of a fiery zeal for religious orthodoxy.” Yet we see that same religious zeal trying to dominate our government and politics today.
Sarah Palin stated last month, “Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers.” John McCain stated in 2007, “I don’t say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would – I just feel that that’s an important part of our qualifications to lead.” These sentiments are simply wrong.
Article 6 of the Constitution states, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Furthermore, whether or not a person is religious, or practices a certain religion, has no bearing on the leadership capabilities of that individual.
It is a historical fact that people of different faiths came to the “new world” to escape religious persecution. Entire colonies were founded by Quakers, Protestants of several different sects, Roman Catholics, etc., and once established, these same colonies began persecuting one another. While many of our founding fathers certainly ascribed to several different religious denominations, it was this fact that prompted our founding fathers to recognize that all religions are equal in America. James Madison wrote at the time of the Constitutional Convention, “Religion itself may become a motive to persecution and oppression.”
Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce recently stated, “The children of illegal immigrants are not citizens.” Obviously, he is wrong. All persons born in the US, or who are naturalized, are US citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment states in Section 1, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As we honor the men and women who gave their lives for our country, we should be remembering what these men and women were protecting. History alone can speak to the ideals that were set before us to honor and define what it means to be an American. When I hear politicians and pundits state that someone, or some idea, is simply “un-American,” I can’t help but to ask, “Have these people no shame?” When the words of our founders and Constitution contradict these people, I have to ask, “Have you no sense of dignity left in you? Have you not read the owners manual for your own country”