In my home state of Tennessee news in the last month demonstrates a bad side of populist politics that is decidedly anti-conservative, and those who follow rightist politics should speak out against it. In Murfreesboro, TN local Muslims have been trying to build a house of worship. The building of the mosque has experienced severe setbacks, and this is a disgrace to Tennessee and conservatives that oppose it.

On June 21 federal prosecutors declared they would prosecute Javier Alan Correa of Texas with civil rights violations. He is nothing more than a terrorist for threatening violence against the local Muslim community, and he should be treated as such. Besides having to deal with threats of violence, someone tried to burn the mosque down in August 2010, and vandals spray painted “Not Welcome” on the building. Finally, on May 29 Chancellor Robert Corlew abrogated the site approval for the mosque because “[t]he law does not prohibit the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission from properly providing notice of the holding of another meeting at which the issue might be again considered.” He did not believe ample notice was given because the mosque is a contentious issue.

Attorney Joe Brandon is leading the witch hunt because he believes the Muslims want to institute Shariah law due to his blatant misunderstanding of Islam. He thinks that Shariah Law is purely a political system. He said, “Shariah law is not religion, and I’m unaware of any situation where you can separate Shariah law out from under Islam.” He thinks that somehow allowing the mosque will lead to a “Constitution-free zone.”

Shariah Law is far more complicated than Brandon is allowing. There is a multiplicity of interpretations concerning the extent and nature of Shariah. There are some fundamentalists like the Salafists in Saudi Arabia, but there have been liberal interpretations of Shariah as well. To say that all Muslims think alike would be the same as declaring that all Christians think alike on politics. Yet those who follow liberation theology have little in common politically with people like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. These differences occur because there is not a single institution that interprets the Quran and hadiths. Different members of the ulema (Muslim religious scholar) can issue contradicting fatwas (religious ruling) on matters.

This is not to say that Islamists and Islamic terrorists do not exist. Osama bin Laden consistently advocated for a return to the Caliphate and made it explicitly clear he committed terrorism because of his faith. Also, there are members of Egypt’s political establishment that want to institute Shariah Law as the law of the land. Saudi Arabia has an extremely strict interpretation of Shariah that the monarchy imposes on the people. However, this does not mean that all Muslims want an Islamic state or utilize Shariah for political purposes. There are plenty of Muslim Americans, just like Christian Americans, that treasure both God and country

These atrocious, misguided, and malevolent actions by bigots in the community are antithetical to the conservative political and religious traditions in America. Although many on the left today think conservative Christian groups like Southern Baptists want to create a theocracy, it was actually the Baptists at America’s founding that avidly promoted the separation of church and state. In fact, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not come from the Constitution but from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. America’s religious community has consistently promoted the right to worship as one sees fit and rejected those who wanted to prevent such worship from happening.

John Locke influenced American political tradition greatly and his “A Letter Concerning Toleration” aptly applies here. He astutely wrote, “The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.” Deep toleration of religious diversity is quintessential to Western style democracies. Within this system people can both tolerate a multiplicity of religious traditions while advocating for the veracity of theirs. Toleration does not mean people cannot engage is proselytization; that swings the pendulum too far the other way.

Too often leftists portray conservatives as fascist bigots that hate anyone who is not a white, male, heterosexual Christian. This could not be further from the truth, but it is instances like this one in Tennessee that they use as cannon fodder. Conservatives should instead promote the toleration that has been in the American political tradition and allow people to worship how they so choose. This is what a real conservative would do.