Modern Religious Liberty: Brought to Us by Our Migrant Ancestors

06/09/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Where were all the Americans on United flight 3504, where Muslim chaplain Tahera Ahmad, who was wearing a headscarf, was refused an unopened soda over concerns she may "use it as a weapon"? Moments later, her neighbor was served an unopened beer. When she looked to other passengers for support, she was told, "You Muslim, you need to shut the f- up."

In America, when we're at our very best, we're practicing the values that we preach. Chief among those values is religious liberty - possibly the longest-held principle that defines "American." It is the very core of the liberties we hold dear, and truly what this great country was founded upon.

That value was borne out of migration - fleeing violence, marginalization, persecution - to be free to believe in a God who provides promise in a new land.

The Protestant theologian Roger Williams built his new colony of Rhode Island as a model of religious diversity - neither the state nor the individual could be forced into a particular religious belief. That ideal, embraced in the 1600s, made its way into the first amendment of our constitution.

Centuries later, it seems some among us need a history refresher.

There is no question that we are a divided nation. And to some extent, that means we're doing the job our country's founders intended - we are diverse in our politics, our personal values, and our religious beliefs. But there are undeniable elements that hold us together, and the most important of those is our freedom. While the toxic combination of fear and unfamiliarity can breed a desire to strip others of that right, stepping outside of our comfort zone can quickly cleanse us of that intolerance. As reported in this Washington Post article, a recent anti-Muslim rally in which protestors donned profane clothing to antagonize worshippers at a local mosque in Arizona is just one example:

Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.

"It was something I've never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along," Leger said. "They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody's points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don't believe."

It's the transformative power of experiences like Leger's that drive Define American's aim to elevate the conversation surrounding those who may be different from us from a conversation rooted in fear to one founded on mutual respect.

As U.S. citizens, there certainly are mandates that, when they are just, we must follow. Avoiding "flying while Muslim" isn't one of them. I would argue as an evangelical that as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, we also have a Biblical mandate to act compassionately toward those who are in need (Matthew 25:34-40), love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12) - all things acknowledged in the Southern Baptist statement on immigration. Although I hope it would help, one doesn't need to be a Christian to practice those values - they are also what make us good Americans.

Just this week, decades after his death, American hero and WWI Sgt. William Shemin was presented with the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award. We finally said "thank you" to a man who served during a time when contributions of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. Shemin, the son of Russian immigrants, was devoted to his Jewish faith and enlisted by lying about his age.

As the President proclaimed in his remarks, "Shemin had three children who gave them 14 grandchildren. He bought a house upstate, where the grandkids spent their summers swimming and riding horses. He taught them how to salute. He taught them the correct way to raise the flag every morning and lower and fold it every night. He taught them how to be Americans."

Who are the William Shemins of our day? Are they the undocumented Americans begging to serve in our nation's military? Are they the Korean shop owners scraping by in search of a dream? Are they the Tahera Ahmads thirsty because of their tireless cross-country work in search of an end to religious and ethnic conflict?

We Americans are at our best when we stand for the humanity and respect of all people. Simply put, we can't immigrate for religious freedom 350 years ago and then mistreat people who now bring their faith to our land in this day.