n his 2009 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama famously declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Yet no Founder was a Muslim, and it is generally agreed that the first mosque in America was a tiny one in rural North Dakota, started in 1929. How then are we to understand Obama’s claim?
Perhaps we need turn to William Jefferson Clinton for guidance in understanding Barack Hussein Obama. Clinton famously argued that understanding a certain issue depended on “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Could understanding Obama’s claim depend on what the meaning of “part of” is?
At the time of the Founding, Islam certainly was part of the story. Adherents of Islam were then conducting jihad on Mediterranean shipping on a grand scale. Colonial America’s ships in the Mediterranean had been under the protection of the British Navy. When Britain withdrew its protection, the Founders were forced to confront the jihadis for themselves, so in 1786 John Adams met with Tripoli’s ambassador in London. At that meeting the ambassador told Adams that American Christians were fair game for piracy because it was the right and duty of Muslims to plunder and enslave all who had not acknowledged the Prophet of Islam. John Jay and others soon argued for ratifying the new Constitution so America would have a central government and navy strong enough to defend her citizens and interests. And it was America’s decision to suppress this threat that sent American marines to “the shores of Tripoli.”
In this sense, then, Islam can be said to have been a part of America’s story from the beginning: it defined an enemy of the new nation, forcing America to summon the capacity to govern and defend itself. It is telling, however, that our tradition of combining piety with tolerance is so strong that President Obama would, in contradiction to the strongest evidence, apply it to Islam.
Religion has always been at the heart of America’s story. In fact, a religious revolution immediately preceded the American Revolution and made it possible. The Great Awakening, the Protestant revival that swept the American colonies just before the American Revolution, was one of the pivotal events of American history. According to Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People: “The Great Awakening was …the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history, preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible. It crossed all religious and sectarian boundaries…and turned what had been a series of European-style churches into American ones.” (Emphasis added.)
It also broke down geographical boundaries. Each colony had been largely a world unto itself, more oriented to London than to its neighbors. The Great Awakening changed all that. George Whitefield, “the Grand Itinerant,” made seven continental tours between 1740 and 1770, speaking to enormous crowds everywhere he went—10,000, an astonishing number in those days, was not uncommon. Whitefield became the first truly American public figure, equally famous in every colony. Whitefield and the other revival preachers of the era brought about a new sense of unity, of what it meant to be an American, and at the same time gave American Christianity its unique character.
Here is Johnson again: “In the America of the Enlightenment…the specifically American form of Christianity—undogmatic, moralistic rather than creedal, tolerant but strong, and all-pervasive of society—was born, and…the Great Awakening was its midwife.” Even the founding of Princeton, the alma mater of Benjamin Rush and James Madison, and the call for John Witherspoon to come to America as Princeton’s president, are the direct result of the Great Awakening. The great religious revival camp-meetings which played such an important role in American life for the next 200 years, and the great non-denominational mega-churches of our day are part of its legacy.
The Great Awakening profoundly shaped the American Revolution. Growing as it did out of a period of deep religious fervor and ferment, the American Revolution was not going to be an anti-religious revolution like the one in France. “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced,” John Adams wrote. “The Revolution was in the mind and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”
Lord Acton traced the history of liberty as the story of mankind’s struggle down through the centuries to realize the political implications of the Gospel. Harry Jaffa agreed: “That the equality of human souls in the sight of God ought to be translated into a political structure of equal political rights has come to be regarded as the most authentic interpretation of the Gospel itself.”
It was the Founders’ great achievement, after nearly two millennia, to make equal political rights that authentic interpretation.