On Feb. 3, President Barack Obama visited an American mosque -- the first such visit of his presidency. He went to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, to reaffirm the importance of religious pluralism ... and respect for that pluralism ... here in the United States.
In so doing, he refuted unequivocally the bigoted anti-Muslim rhetoric heard all too often on the political campaign trail these days, and he reaffirmed one of the foundational ideals of the United States: welcoming and celebrating religious diversity.
Early on, he noted that the Islamic State Group's terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have led to verbal and physical attacks on Muslims and mosques and even Muslim children in the United States: These are children just like mine. And the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their places in this great country of ours at a time when they’ve got enough to worry about -- it’s hard being a teenager already -- that’s not who we are.
President Obama put this present moment into historical context. He recounted some of our sordid history of religious in-tolerance. The first was a somewhat light-hearted reference to himself. During his first campaign for president, Obama himself was "accused" -- if one can use that word -- of being a Muslim himself. But he drifted from the text of his speech to note that " ...Thomas Jefferson's opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim ... so I was not the first ... I'm in good company."
Then he went back in time, noting that Islam came to the United States early in our history because many of the slaves brought to the United States from Africa were Muslim and, even in bondage, kept their faith alive.
He also linked anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence of today with other forms of historic religious bigotry. He cited the anti-Mormon violence of the 19th century and the anti-Catholicism that plagued even President John F. Kennedy, accusations that suggested Kennedy would take orders from the pope rather than fulfill his constitutional duties. And Obama noted that anti-Semitism has a "sad and long history" in this country, when "Jews were excluded routinely from colleges, professions and public office."
But, he said, "an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. ... None of us can be silent. We can't be bystanders to bigotry."
Obama also provided some basic public education about Islam. He noted that, like so many other faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. And he quoted the Golden Rule as taught by the Prophet Mohammed: "Whoever wants to enter paradise ... let him treat people the way he would love to be treated."
Later, Obama noted that some voices on the Internet try to tell young Muslims that they have to choose between identities: Muslim or American -- but Obama's response was emphatic: "You are right where you belong. You are part of America too. You are not Muslim or American. You're Muslim and American."
In delivering this stirring message, President Obama was reflecting the finest ideals of the United States. These are also the ideals of the public radio show that I host, Interfaith Voices. We are always strongest and most truly American when we welcome and celebrate our diversity.
To hear the on-air version of this commentary on Interfaith Voices, click here.