Islam, Coffee County, TN, and Thomas Jefferson

When national media outlets cover something in Coffee County, then it must be big.  No disrespect to the fine folks who live there, but their community doesn’t often make national news.  But that’s what happened this week in connection with an educational event regarding civil rights sponsored by a Muslim organization and featuring a U.S. Attorney and a member of the FBI.  What transpired was wrong.  And I have a feeling I know what Thomas Jefferson would have said.

To clarify at the outset, by “wrong,” I don’t mean there is anything wrong with:

  • Educating people about their constitutional and statutorily provided civil rights, or
  • A Muslim organization hosting such an educational meeting.

And there is nothing wrong with a U.S. Attorney speaking at an educational forum about constitutional rights and civil liberties.  But the context within which this particular educational forum was formulated made the event unwise and unhelpful, if not just wrong.

The context for setting up this “educational” event was an unfunny attempt at “commentary” about the Muslim religion by a local elected official’s post on his Facebook page.

So what about this forum was the problem?

First, bringing in a U.S. Attorney and the FBI to talk about federal civil rights crimes when all those involved knew no crime had been committed allowed the line between free speech and illegal activity to be too easily blurred.  It fed, rather than dissipated, confusion.

Second, the timing, when added to the fact that federal law enforcement officials were the speakers, naturally fed into a growing concern among conservatives that the “strong arm” of the federal government is now “taking sides” for and against citizens based on whether it approves of those citizen’s views.

In this regard, Exhibit 1 is the IRS scandal.  Exhibit 2 is military officials labeling conservative Christians as domestic terrorist threats.  Exhibit 3 is the revelation that Attorney General Holder has been secretly investigating certain journalists’ communications.

In other words, discerning organizations and federal officials wanting to promote education should have figured out that the context required  one of two things.  They either needed to create distance time-wise between the event and its provocation or invite other speakers who would not have carried the “baggage” of distrust people now have in government.

That such a bare modicum of judgment was not exercised made it very easy for many conservatives to conclude that the purpose of all those involved was to intimidate individuals from exercising their right to voice concerns about Islam and Sharia law.  And when one group of individuals can try to use the federal government to intimidate other groups or individuals, then none of us are safe or free.

What Thomas Jefferson wrote in the document that became The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom pretty much sums up what was wrong and what I think he would have said to those involved:

1.  The organizers of the forum needed to hear Jefferson say:

“… to suffer the civil magistrate [U.S. Attorney and FBI] to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty. . . . “  (emphasis added)

2.  The federal officials, having heard the preceding statement, also needed to hear Jefferson say:

“… it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”

3.  And they both needed to hear him say:

“… truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

“Free argument and debate” for the purpose of educating people about the truth regarding Sharia law and the Constitution did not happen, just more shouting and more distrust.