Summoning your courage

Published 11:44 pm Friday, July 1, 2016

We live in exciting — and dangerous — times. Just a week ago we saw a Trump-supported Brexit, virtually an act of political terrorism, where British voters recklessly opted to leave the European Union. The United Kingdom went from being the world’s fifth-largest economy to being the sixth-largest in just one day. The world market lost $3 trillion dollars in two days, and millions of Americans lost $100 billion from their 401(k) retirement plans in three days.

Then came the terrorist attack in Turkey on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the third-busiest in Europe, with 60 million passengers in 2015. Three men blew themselves up, causing 42 deaths and injuring 239 innocent civilians. One of the dead was Fathi Bayoudh, a Tunisian army general and doctor, who had flown to Turkey to save his son, who had joined ISIS and now wanted out.

These acts increase uncertainty in the world. Rapid, almost impulsive change is causing people to be fearful. Trump added to the uncertainty, morphing from his “total and complete shutdown on all Muslims entering the U.S.,” to banning immigration from his loosely defined “terrorist nations.”

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Whatever window dressing he gave his Muslim ban, Trump’s press releases leave no doubt he is targeting people of Muslim faith, who are themselves the first targets of terrorists. Istanbul is additional proof that Muslims suffer the greatest losses at terrorists’ hands.

We are on the eve of celebrating the birth of this country on July 4, 1776. I think this the right time to recall that we are a nation settled and forged by millions who fled religious persecution in Europe.

In addition to the New England colonies, the Mid-Atlantic colonies of New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania were settled “as plantations of religion.” Even the colonies settled as commercial ventures were managed by men who called themselves “militant Protestants.”

The idea gripping Europe at the time was that uniformity in religion was a good thing, that kings and queens ruled by “divine right,” and that it was the religious duty of state and church (often one and the same) to enforce that one faith, by any means necessary.

We justly recoil in horror at the beheadings that ISIS carries out in the name of Islam. The majority of Muslims do not recognize these barbarous acts as part of their faith.

History tells us that humanity behaves similarly. The religious persecutions in Christian Europe rival those carried out today by ISIS. Church authorities in Belgium executed David van der Leyen in 1554 for leading the Mennonites, by strangling, then burning, then finishing him off with a pitchfork.

The Protestant government of Scotland in 1615 hung, then disemboweled Jesuit John Ogilvie for the crime of being Catholic. It gets worse. After countless Huguenots (French Protestants) were slaughtered by Catholic mobs, 400,000 fled France for other lands, including America. Other Huguenots sought revenge against their Catholic enemies.

In 1641, Irish Catholics, after torturing 100 jailed Protestants, herded them to a bridge, made them strip, and forced them at sword point to jump into the water. Those who survived were shot.

By 1790, a Jewish congregation presented President George Washington with a letter referencing the religious persecution they had fled, and lauding the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom.

Washington replied, “the government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction (and) to persecution no assistance.” The anti-Muslim hysteria being whipped up today against a peaceful religious minority by some politicians in America defies our most basic value of religious freedom — won by the sacrifice of blood and incredible hardships of American soldiers.

The winter of 1777-78 was the lowest point of the American Revolution. The nation’s capital, then Philadelphia, had been captured by the British. Having suffered military defeats, Washington withdrew his 12,000-man army to Valley Forge to winter-over and regroup.

He wrote to Congress that he had been informed his army had but 25 barrels of flour, and not a single animal to slaughter. Over 2,000 men had died from disease, and exposure to the elements.

He faced desertions and mutiny. The bulk of the army stayed. But Washington had to report that “no less than 2,898 men now in camp unfit for duty because they are barefoot and otherwise naked.” There were thousands of men without food, shoes, clothing or even blankets to sleep under.

In another letter, Washington noted that his army’s “marches might be tracked by the blood from their feet.” That winter marked the turning point of the Revolution. Our forefathers stuck out that winter because they knew the persecutions of religious intolerance. They neither fled their posts, nor banned others arriving on our shores who were leaving the same persecutions. Valley Forge soldiers had faced death, and were willing to face it again, with courage, for the sake of religious freedom.

This upcoming election will be a profound turning point for the United States. We will either reaffirm our values of religious freedom and face the terrorists who would have us abandon it, or we will cave to the dark ages before this nation was founded.

It’s a choice we must face in order for our nation and its values to last another 240 years. Happy Independence Day!

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.