The longer the United States is around, the more we realize how inconvenient our foundational truth is: "all men are created equal." I have come to understand these words in our modern context -- "all humans." Yet it is increasingly clear that there is still a sizable part of our population that either consciously or unconsciously holds to a definition of this statement as "white Christian men."
This notion was thrown in sharp relief again this week as I watched a rally for Donald Trump. One of his supporters once again raised accusations that President Obama is Muslim and then, as part of his exchange with the candidate, asked, "when can we get rid of them?" -- meaning the American Muslim community. Shockingly, Donald Trump responded by saying, "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things."
There is so much that is problematic in this exchange that it is not clear where to start, but let me try. The president has said he is a Christian and has given us no reason to believe otherwise. But were he a Muslim, it shouldn't matter. Our constitution makes clear that there is no religious test for public office. Millions of Muslims are citizens this country, still more are legal residents. They raise their families, go to work, serve in our armed forces, contribute to our economy. They have no less right to leadership than anyone else.
As bad as the first part of the exchange was, the second half was worse. It makes clear that there are some who seem to support the idea of deporting American citizens simply because of their religious beliefs. The coarse discussions about deporting undocumented immigrants are lacking enough in humanity, but now the specter of an immigration and deportation system based on religious belief has gone unrepudiated by a man who would be president. The constitutionality of such a proposal is dubious (at best); the inhumanity of it is sickening.
Our country is no stranger to dividing humanity into equal and less-equal categories. This exchange at the Trump rally is sadly just the latest example of this trend. In past election cycles, mainstream candidates have mostly eschewed the approach of building walls between groups of Americans; now it has become the quickest way to rise in the polls. The anguished cry of "Black Lives Matter" has been labeled racist. Gays and lesbians have been deemed unworthy of the protection of law. Foreign nationals - especially those from Mexico -- have been accused of importing crime and babies for the rest of us to deal with. And we were treated to another iteration of the War of Civilizations in the last candidate debate -- western Jews and Christians against those interlopers from the Middle East.
To understand how times have changed we need only look back eight years when then-candidate and Senator John McCain took the microphone from a questioner who started down the path of questioning then Senator Obama's identity. He refused to let her continue. He acknowledged profound disagreements with Sen. Obama, but would not listen to the double transgression of demeaning the person by demeaning a group of people. Truth be told, I wish Senator McCain had gone further and made a bolder, more affirming statement that the American Muslim community is a part of the fabric of our nations life, and that even if Obama were a Muslim, it would be fine. I want to believe his failure to do so was more uninformed than it was malicious.
Our founding fathers may have been a bunch of white guys, but the greatness of America was built on diversity. By definition, diversity requires otherness -- otherness to be cultivated, validated and celebrated. The short-term gains in polls and caucuses that emerge from discriminatory language are earned by reinforcing the worst shortcomings of our society, and they betray that foundational value from which this country emerged: All men are created equal.