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The Constitution is a Fragile Thing: Republicans Candidates and Religious Liberty

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s just start at the beginning, with the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That is the first line in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s really, really clear. If you claim to love the Constitution (and really people mean the Bill of Rights when they say they love the Constitution), it means loving the freedoms and liberties enshrined in it.

And the Founders started with religion.

The Constitution is only as strong as the people upholding its values. The Constitution can’t enforce itself. The Constitution doesn’t pass laws violating its principles; politicians do. During primary season, we’ve been reminded of this often unacknowledged fact.

So when numerous Republican candidates for president advocate unconstitutional proposals, you’d expect more protest from the party that carries mini-Constitutions, endorses original intent, and opens Congress by reading the Constitution from front to back (leaving out any sections the founders originally put in about 3/5th people).

If you had asked me before the election, I would have guessed that Republican candidates would have advocated violating the constitution when it comes to warrantless wiretapping. That’s hardly come up. Instead, candidates are advocating and proposing laws that would directly violate the First Amendment--by infringing on Muslim’s right to worship--by Republican candidates, most vocally Donald Trump followed by Ted Cruz. (This also applies to immigration, like Donald Trump’s opposition to the 14th Amendment.)

At his most extreme, Trump recommended creating a database of Muslims in America for intelligence agencies to watch/surveil/track. Summed up, simply for adhering to a religious belief (Islam), the government will track certain people. How can that not terrify anyone worried about government power or protecting civil liberties?

Other candidates called for using religion to screen immigrants. Still unconstitutional, other candidates including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz joined Trump on this issue. Ted Cruz has also battled Donald Trump for which candidate can go the closest to outright Islamophobia, in some cases sounding like he endorses hate speech against Muslims.

In some ways, we can’t really blame Trump or Cruz, who are following the worst impulses of the people in the party they represent. As in all things politics, it’s a chicken and egg conundrum: Is the politician to blame for racist, unconstitutional views or the people showing up at his rallies? Of course, the people don’t just get riled up on their own. Conservative talk radio helps, and sometimes goes much farther than the politicians or people.

You can see this in the worst impulses of mobs of people. The first amendment says the federal and state governments cannot privilege any religion over another. So if a town allows a Catholic church and a Protestant church, it must also allow a Mosque. Yet that basic understanding of the Constitution doesn’t stop a mob of citizens in Virginia from protesting a renovation to an Islamic center. Whether through popular fiat or government regulation, they want to evict all Muslims. (This is similar to the people who wanted to ban a Mosque from opening near the World Trade Center.) This is the worst sort of populism the founders feared.

If you want absolute security, the Constitution is not for you. Too often the values that keep us free put us at risk. Civil libertarians (like myself) too often neglect this fact. Republican candidates probably do love the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution, but it seems like they love safety more. They are reflecting the sentiment of their base. And that base is scared. Pointlessly scared--the risk of dying is almost zero from Muslim terrorism--but still scared.

And scared people overreact. These overreactions do threaten our country: they threaten the Constitution. They threaten the Bill of Rights.

Responding to Donald Trump’s surprising political success, a lot of liberals have responded with jokes, not taking him seriously. As voting begins today in Iowa, serious issues are at stake, up to and including the sanctity of the Constitution.

The Constitution is a fragile thing after all.