Genghis Khan: America's Founding Father?
Best-selling anthropologist Jack Weatherford recently published a provocative book entitled Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom (Viking, 2016). In his book, Weatherford shockingly argues that Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance during his rule over the Mongol Empire served as an inspiration for America’s founding fathers, who enshrined that ideal in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This article will examine the plausibility of Weatherford’s claim, comment on its significance, and reflect on some of its broader implications.
Weatherford’s radical theory draws inspiration from a footnote in Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89). Gibbon, contrasting the Mongol Empire’s religious freedom with Europe’s religious fanaticism, argued that a “singular conformity may be found between the religious laws of [Genghis] Khan and Mr. [John] Locke.” America’s founding fathers drew heavily on Locke’s political philosophy, and Weatherford discovered that Thomas Jefferson read The History of Genghizcan the Great (1710), an authoritative biography written by the French scholar Pétis de la Croix. The latter wrote that Genghis Khan, “far from ordaining any punishment or persecution against those who were not his sect, [forbade] to disturb or molest any person on account of religion, and desired that everyone should be left at liberty to profess that which pleased him best.”
According to Weatherford, Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance served as an excellent example for the framers of the First Amendment. The founding fathers, lacking “a true intellectual history of their own, searched eagerly for models of moral government and justice beyond the pool of Western European experience. In the quest for alternate concepts, they read widely about the history of Asian leaders.” Jefferson in particular was “deeply influenced” by de la Croix’s biography, and he eventually proposed “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” to the Virginia General Assembly. Enacted in 1786, the bill declared, like de la Croix’s passage, “That no man shall… suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess… their opinions in matters of religions.”
Weatherford’s argument is both novel and tenuous. It is counter-intuitive, perhaps even laughable, that a lofty value such as religious freedom may have originated in the law code of a barbaric warlord in medieval Mongolia. Additionally, it is extremely difficult to prove the extent of an idea’s influence. Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in Weatherford’s argument, however, is the 500-year gap: Genghis Khan ruled the Mongol Empire in the early 13th century, whereas America’s founding fathers crafted the Constitution toward the end of the 18th. One may question why the idea of religious tolerance did not take root earlier, and why no political philosopher actually cited Genghis Khan as a historical precedent.
Yet, despite its difficulties, Weatherford’s claim is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, if it is correct, it vastly alters our perception of the First Amendment. While no practical ramification emerges from this view, it is important to know the sources and origins of one’s cultural values. Additionally, Weatherford’s argument reflects a salient aspect of cross-cultural comparison: although different cultures across time and space may appear to be fundamentally dissimilar, one often discovers familiar elements within the alterity. Finally, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God reminds us of the beauty and importance of the religious freedom that we enjoy today. Not only should we be grateful for the liberty we have, but we should strive to protect it. In recent years, Supreme Court rulings have prioritized certain constitutional rights over religious liberty. It is our prerogative to uphold the latter to the fullest extent allowed by the law, and it is our duty to advocate against its further erosion.
Genghis Khan and the Quest for God is certainly not the definitive work on the history of religious freedom in America. Weatherford’s book is certainly fascinating and entertaining, but it belongs more to the realm of pop history than academic publications – hence the sensationalized title and the non-university press. Additionally, Weatherford ignores substantial scholarship on both Genghis Khan and America’s founding fathers. So feel free to enjoy the novelty of Weatherford’s claim, but be hesitant to view Genghis Khan as the intellectual progenitor of the First Amendment. Rather, I encourage you to delve into the vast body of works on the history of religious freedom and to use that newfound knowledge to defend and explain this important value.