“Americans are more deeply divided and angry with each other today than at any time since the 1850s. Now, as then, distrust of leaders and institutions is widespread, and charges of conspiracy by one group against the liberty, livelihood, or principles of another pour out in torrents of speeches and news stories. Now, as then, there are racial and ethnic clashes in the cities, terrorist confrontations, a fracturing of parties, and charges of corruption everywhere in government, in churches, in businesses” (1).
The above statement could have been expressed at any time in American history. It could also have been stated at any time during any American Presidential election. It could have been stated in the 1860 election when Abraham Lincoln was elected President. It could have equally been uttered in the contentious Presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson or in 2016, or most recently, in 2020. But it was not.
These words were written in 1999 by Dr. Robert Fogel, an American economist, who, interestingly, is infatuated with writing books that deal with American religion.
In his “The Fourth Great Awakening,” Fogel argues that in the wake of “American religious awakenings,” American society “evolves positively” but only after a time of difficulty. Fogel points out that the “First three awakenings” occurred before the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement, respectively. The first three “awakenings” were led by American Christian groups.
The “Fourth Great Awakening” is different altogether. It started in 2000 and it “seemingly” is led by various supporters of diverse American religions. It could be decades before we know exactly what the effect of the Fourth Great Awakening will accomplish.
In many ways, the American Founders anticipated such events. Highly suspicious of organized religions, the American Founders were concerned that “religion” could get in the way of anything from national progress to Presidential elections. For this reason, the Founders desired “peaceful transitions of power” (2). It was not faith systems that bothered them. What bothered them, were the clergy.
The American Founders had good reason to mistrust the clergy. The fear was that Christian clergy were ambitious people who were prone to usurp power. The 17th Century gave them every reason to feel this way. The 17th Century in Europe saw one religious war followed by yet another religious war (3).
If leaders were left unchecked, usurpation of political power could easily happen. However, there is another reason why the American Founders desired a “peaceful” transition of power. The 17th century saw the tumultuous era known as the “English Civil Wars.” During the era, a Monarch was beheaded, Parliament usurped powers, and a major Church Council was held in London which would have repercussions in the North American Colonies. Colonial Virginia saw an insurrection in 1676, known as “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Nathaniel Bacon, the son of a British nobleman, lead a “rebellion” supported by enslaved West Africans and indentured servants (4). Their goal was to “violently” remove Lord Berkeley, the Royal Governor in Jamestown.
And although 1676 was 100 years earlier than 1776, the seeds of the American Revolution were already planted.
The events of the English Civil Wars were very much in the memories of American Founders: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. They were in agreement on the following: no Monarch, no Parliamentary Democracy, and no violent transition of power. They were also in agreement that there would be a written Constitution with a preceding Bill of Rights which would protect the “minority from the tyranny of the majority.”
All agreed that the “First Amendment” would state clearly an important Constitutional principle where religion is concerned. In the first place, Congress would recognize no established Church/Religion. Secondly, Congress may not restrict the religious freedom of any person or group. It is not that the American Founders disbelieved in God. They did! The American Founders were Philosophical Deists which was, in effect, Islam without the Qur’an. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a love and respect for Islam and believed that the New Republic could benefit from Islam. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson anticipated the “Letter from Mecca” written by American-born Muslim, Malcolm X. In his letter, Malcolm X suggests that “America needs to understand Islam” (5).
In 2013, University of Texas Professor, Dr. Denise Spellman, wrote a provocative book entitled “Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders” (6). She points out that in 1753, the younger attorney Thomas Jefferson ordered from London “The Qur’an in Two Volumes” by George Sale. The young Jefferson, Spellman argues, may very well have learned about “Religious Freedom” from the Qur’an in Chapter 2, Verse 257:
“Let there be no compulsion in matters of religion.”
Many Jefferson scholars believe that this verse is the inspiration of “religious freedom” (not to be confused with “religious tolerance” espoused by John Locke) which influenced Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia to pen “The Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia” (7). This important Statute is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
When Jefferson was serving in France, he was friendly with three Ottoman Muslim diplomats. Jefferson was aware that the Ottoman State was governed by a hereditary Sultan. But he was also familiar with the “Mejelle” (8), an Ottoman Civil Law Code that, among other things, had the “separation of powers” which he believed would both ease and prohibit conflict in the New Republic. This little piece of Ottoman praxis, Jefferson surmised, would potentially ease the transition of powers.
There was a final thing that appealed to Jefferson as far as both smooth transitions and “religious freedom” were concerned. Jefferson knew his history. This is something that many Americans do not know. He knew that from 1299 to 1517, the Ottoman State had more Christian citizens than Muslim citizens. He understood the Ottoman concept of “Millet” (independent court of law in the Ottoman Empire pertaining to ‘personal law’) which had evolved from “Dhimmi” (a non-Muslim living under protection of Sharia or Islamic Law) in Islamic Jurisprudence. These Islamic concepts guaranteed rights of Citizenship to all citizens. Spellman points out that Jefferson looked forward to the day when Muslims had equal rights of Citizenship in the New American Republic. In this way, smooth transition of power would be safeguarded.
Here we are in February 2021 and the transition was not smooth. Did the Founders fail? Were they wrong? Look at the “religious fervor” found in White Supremacy and in White Evangelical Christianity.
The reality is that the Founders did not fail. The problem is that “We the People” have not been faithful in continuing the task started by them. The Preamble states that “We the People” must continue the process of forming “the more Perfect Union.” When they completed their task, there was still much to do. West Africans were still enslaved, women did not vote, women were “property,” and native Americans were still exploited.
On January 6, 2021, an angry mob of White Supremacists and so-called Christians stormed the United States Capitol Building. A line is drawn in the sand. What are our problems today? A recent President tried to “ban all Muslims.” The People said “No!” The indigenous State of Hawaii filed a law suit against that President. Islam is a religion protected by the Constitution in the US.
African Americans are still treated as second class citizens. Muslims, Jews, Christians, white people, Hispanic people, and native Americans are joining the “Black Lives Matter Movement.” People are economically disenfranchised and other people are rising up saying, Enough!
Healthcare, food, and shelter are basic human rights! Do you see what I am suggesting? We still have a great deal of work to do. It will take all of us working together. It will not be up to President Joe Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, or any other President or politician. It will be up to “We the people” that is me, you, and everyone else around us!
Let’s get to work, together!
1. Robert William Fogel (1999), “The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism,” p. 15, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL.
2. “Presidential Transition Act of 1963”. U.S. General Services Administration. March 7, 1964. Retrieved January 12, 2017. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLA W-114publ 136/pdf/PLA W-114publ 136.pdf [Accessed: February 21, 2021]
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wars_of_religion [Accessed: February 21, 2021]
4. https://www.history.com/news/bacons-rebellion-jamestown-colonial-america [Accessed: February 21, 2021]
5. Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
6. “Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: Islam and the founders,” Denise A. Spellb erg, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2013.
7. “Thomas Jefferson, A Religious Man with A Passion For Religious Freedom” Elliot K. Wicks, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1967), pp. 271-283 (13 pages). Published By: Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. [https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973187, Accessed: February 21, 2021]
8. “Mejelle” Ottoman civil law, Constantinople, 1889.
Last modified: July 2021