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I was troubled by a recent poll indicating that many Americans do not support the protection of religious liberties for all. Asked if religious liberty protections are important for Christians, 82 percent responded affirmatively. But when asked about religious protections for Muslims, only 61% said "yes." Preserving religious freedom for Jews was important only to about 70 percent, for Mormons 67 percent, and for people of no religion, the importance of their freedoms were judged no better than Muslims'.

Such religious discrimination is contrary to the example of Jesus, and it is at odds with the intentions of our nation's founders.

Jesus was remarkably generous and accepting in his encounters with people of other religions. He offered the same healing and feeding to native and foreigner, Jew and Gentile alike.

In his culture, Samaritans were probably the most hated "other" religion. When a Samaritan village refused a request for Jesus' party to travel through the town, his hot-headed disciples James and John asked, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" They would have thought that to be a reasonable request in the temper of the day. Jesus, however, rebuked his disciples and peacefully took another route. On another journey he offered living water to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. And Jesus used a compassionate Samaritan as the exemplary hero of his "Good Samaritan" parable, defining the meaning of "neighbor."

We have stories of Jesus' generous acceptance not only of Samaritans, but also Canaanites, Syro-Phoenicians, Geresenes, and Romans. His compassion was universal. It is hard to imagine that anyone professing to follow Jesus would deny religious liberties to a person of another faith.

Religious liberty is also a core principle of our nation's founders. The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits making any law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The home state of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia was a fertile testing ground for our founders' principles. The Virginia Colony was created with my church as the established church -- the Church of England in Virginia was the state church. The church received tax revenue supporting its ministry, and it had the sole authority and duty to offer prayer and other religious activities on behalf of the state. Washington and Jefferson were both members. But as they helped create the new nation, Washington and Jefferson endorsed a different model.

Thomas Jefferson was so proud of being the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that it was one of the three distinctions he had carved into his famous gravestone, with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia.

During debate over the Virginia statute, some legislators proposed inserting the words "Jesus Christ" in Jefferson's preamble. Remembering that debate, Jefferson wrote in his autobiography that "the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and Infidel of every denomination."

Much of the energy behind the 18th century movement for religious freedom was from Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians and Evangelicals as dissenters from the established church. They claimed liberal religious freedoms for themselves as well as for Muslims and "infidels" and Jews. When Jefferson's opponents argued that the Virginia law would allow Jews and Muslims and atheists to hold office, evangelicals replied strongly, "Yes, it will!"

George Washington welcomed immigrant workers to his Mount Vernon home, saying "they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohammedans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

At our best, we are a nation that gives no special place of privilege to any religion, including Christianity. All religions and no religion are on equal footing.

In a time when un-civil anti-Muslim rhetoric infects our national discourse and occasionally provokes incidents of anti-Muslim violence, it is important for the Christian majority to speak out on behalf of our Muslim neighbors.

We may need to use force to protect ourselves and others from religious-based violence. We have plenty of experience with violent Christians like the KKK, Nazis and Fascists. But it is unjust to judge all Christians by the acts of the KKK or Nazis. And all Muslims are not like ISIS.

It is our tradition to honor and protect religious diversity and liberty. As someone said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Commentary on 02/16/2016

Print Headline: Freedom for all

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