A few years back, in the midst of the controversy surrounding an Islamic Center being planned for a site near the Ground Zero memorial in New York City, President Obama declared: “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently is essential to who we are.”
Kenneth Davis, a historian connected with the Smithsonian Institute, noted at the time that in doing so, he wrote, Obama was paying homage to a vision that politicians and preachers have extolled for more than two centuries, that this country has been a place since its beginnings of religious tolerance. That this was a sentiment George Washington himself had voiced shortly after taking his oath of office as our first President, just a few blocks from the site of the rubble that once was the World Trade Center and its twin towers.
But was that so? He challenged us. Was it just a storybook version of the truth that most of us learned in school, that the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 to escape persecution in England and in search of religious freedom in the New Land?
That the Puritans came shortly thereafter for the same reason, arriving at their shiny City on the Hill, which was Boston, and that ever since, millions from around the world have done the same, finding a melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith?
Not so, the historian tells us, this American myth. The real story of religion in America, he observes, is awkward, frequently embarrassing, and occasionally even bloody. That those Pilgrims and Puritans and other first colonists were all about founding their own theocracies that brooked no dissent, either political or religious. It was not a story of mutual toleration, of, at the very least, doing no harm to one another in the name of faith.
It was instead a story of discrimination and suppression of the “heretic” and the “unbeliever,” and even when the vast majority of our earliest generations were Christians, there were pitched battles, wrote Davis, between Protestants and Catholics.
Enter George Washington in 1790, fourteen years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one year after he became president. As another religious historian has noted, he does not hold a reputation as a political philosopher, rather is remembered and praised for his military leadership during the Revolutionary War and the fact alone that he held the office as our first independent chief. Nonetheless, his words of greeting in the letter that was read this morning are powerful and revolutionary on a different battlefield. The battlefield of competing theologies and world views.
In it, he held that religious minorities were not going to be officially tolerated in the United States. No not tolerated, a condition that Thomas Paine, a great influence on Washington and many of his counterparts, found condescending: Not the opposite of intolerance, he wrote, but the counterfeit of it.
Both intolerance and tolerance are despotisms, he believed. If one could grant tolerance, as if anyone had that power, it could also be taken away, Paine would write in his book The Rights of Man. Not like in Europe, where a Catholic country could grant tolerance to Lutherans or Calvinists, as the Austrian Emperor had done a few years earlier, or some other permutation of theocratic hierarchy and power. No, a superior idea would prevail, Washington agreed: egalitarian religious liberty.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of,” Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation Yeshaut Israel of Newport, Rhode Island, in response to a letter sent him by its top official, Moses Seixas, following a presidential visit there after the state had been the last to ratify the constitution.
In his letter to the President, Moses celebrated that the new Constitution, by banning religious tests for public office and adding the first amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, offered Jews “the invaluable rights of free citizens,” privileges denied them in most other countries and, in fact, in this country in its founding years, when all men had to swear on the New Testament to enter public office and where people were denied the vote because of their faith.
In response, Washington assured the members of this synagogue that they would, as all citizens, enjoy freedom of conscience. An enlarged and liberal policy, he wrote, worthy of imitation. One where none would be privileged and none demeaned. No matter how few their numbers.
In fact, Jews were the new nation’s smallest minority, a fraction of the population, numbering no more than two thousand people, in a nation then of around four million. But they were not newcomers, either to religious intolerance or religious danger, tracing their American roots to 1654 when around two dozen of them fled Brazil, which had transferred from Dutch to Portuguese rule, and along with the change in reign, the long arm of the Inquisition — the Catholic tribunal whose official mandate was to root out heretics, including Jews, Muslims, and Protestants.
In Manhattan, where they first settled, these Jewish transplants were harassed and ultimately ousted by the anti-Semite colonial governor, Peter Stuyvesant, venturing instead to Rhode Island, where Puritan dissident Roger Williams had founded a colony with what has been described as a spacious view of religious freedom, earning from the Dutch in Manhattan the label of being a sacrilegious latrine.
Clearly, Washington sided with both the messiness and hopefulness of religious diversity in that momentous correspondence between President and a tiny Jewish enclave, those 340 words in which he “happily” asserted that this new country, these United States, would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
This letter, previously nearly forgotten in a Maryland storage facility, brought to light as the star of a special exhibit on George Washington and Religious Freedom at the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia, is an eloquent marker of the foundation of religious freedom in the United States, where the federal government would have no official say in matters of religious practice and where Americans would be free to choose how and where to exercise religion and which beliefs would sustain their spiritual lives.
Even while other basic human rights were denied to non-whites and to women. Even while the Constitution only applied to actions of the federal government and did not restrict States from discriminating on the basis of religion. Nor could an official document stem the biases and bigotry that was and is perpetrated in those many spheres that exist around and beyond official law.
Or the fact that the types and numbers of faith traditions have exponentially exploded. There are now more than 300 Christian denominations. There are many other religions that have come along with the waves of immigrants, or imported directly from afar.
When Washington was President, there was no Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). No official Unitarian Church, both of which — the Mormons and the UUs — have been called treacherous, even satanic cults, by evangelist Pat Robertson, along with the Unification Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas, odd fellow faiths at that.
What would have Washington made of the runaway success of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, the religious satire written by the creators of South Park, which tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in Northern Uganda where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naïve and optimistic, the missionaries try to share the Book of Mormon, but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are more worried about famine, poverty, and AIDS than religion? Where many of the original teachings of the Church are spoofed, and scriptures abandoned for a more pragmatic approach to human need.
A play that has made millions, whose tickets cost a small fortune, and which has earned most of the major awards for theater excellence over its two-year-and-still-not-flagging run.
Would Washington have assumed that the play is a shameful and bigoted attack on a religion and the people who follow it? Or surprised that on the ground, most Mormons are nonplussed, or even more, as one Mormon commentator, writing in The Christian Century, found it charming, even hilarious, with theological flaws, but all-in-all good news for the church, helping to sustain what they see as a “Mormon moment.” Putting them in the cultural spotlight in a society where half of Americans three years ago knew next to nothing about Mormons and had never met one.
Another Mormon, albeit a self-labeled unorthodox one, wrote in her blog that she had been skeptical about the musical before she actually went to see it, as her religion has been such an easy target these days, with its polygamist past associated with the sensational trials of so-called prophets who are sexual abusers, or the popularity of the fictionalized contemporary Big Love and the reality show Sister Wives. But she was sold from the first scene of The Book of Mormon, with Mormon missionaries just like her relatives ringing doorbells, and is excited to see that the Mormon Church has just launched a $1 million ad campaign focusing on the Big Apple and the possibility of evangelizing theater goers in Time Square.
Would George Washington, defender of, and advocate for, religious liberty, have wondered how appropriate it was that Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor dedicates so much air time to satirizing, sometimes and increasingly pointedly and grumpily, both his Lutheran Church of origin and the Unitarians, with whom he has never had a direct connection, only raising occasional ire from either camp (more so from us, it seems).
All of this, I would think, might have made Washington, in his words, “happy” that even at our more extreme theological edges, we are making room for, even as we make fun of, one another.
At least sometimes.
But what would he have made of the possible and real danger of religious figures and destructiveness of groups — even as he had so much faith in religious liberty and right of conscience, and saw the need to fiercely protect choice in belief under that biblical vine and fig tree?
James R. Lewis writes about and warns us about what he would prefer to call dangerous groups rather than cults, as he reminds us that one person’s cult is another person’s religion. And situations such as the siege of the Branch Davidian community or the group suicides in Jonestown and among Heaven’s Gate members.
The proper question he poses is not whether a particular group is a cult or a false religion by some subjective definition, but rather how authority is used in a group, whether there is control over individuals behavior that devolves into punishment for disobedience rather than respectful disagreement, or when the leader is held to a different standard or behavior, or considers the group above the law in harmful ways, such as arming themselves for actual battle or subjecting others to abuse and other violence.
These possibilities, these realities, that Washington and his colleagues may or may not have considered, known or imagined, are troubling enough in the most aberrant groups, but more so for me when the behaviors manifest in our largest and most powerful religious institutions: whether connected with the Catholic Church or Orthodox Judaism, or other places where harm is done within religious community.
Would he have come to see that when women and people of color and gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgendered people are denied membership or leadership in faith communities, even those not of our own, that all of us are damaged by their diminishment?
When American nuns are punished for speaking out on issues like access to birth control and others are tossed out of their faith homes or denied its sacraments because of who they choose to love. Or denied education and a future, other the one a text or a culture permitted them two thousand years ago.
Would he have been surprised, come to know that it is a natural and dangerous and damaging tendency to impose one’s own private bigoted beliefs, and those of a particular religious community, on others, regardless of their beliefs? That a group like Westboro Baptist Church, founded, ironically, as a civil rights faith community, twisted over the years by its founder into an extreme homophobic group, would injure and shame others, even by invading the funerals of soldiers and children slaughtered in an elementary school?
Or the Mormon Church, trying as it is to outgrow old prejudices against it, old images and abandoned behaviors, spending its fortune, imposing its will on voters in an entire state when it largely funded the proposition in California to outlaw same sex marriage (a tactic that backfired on them mightily, a colleague of mine who works to oppose these kinds of initiatives told me, silencing them in subsequent battles in other states)?
Could Washington have even imagined the money and the media available to religious figures and faith groups in this country, now more than two hundred years later?
I was taught years ago in the Church Across the Street Sunday School class, and our middle schoolers in our Neighboring Faith curriculum are now being taught more expansively and deeply, how to be people being religious together, participating in other people’s religious traditions, increasing understanding and inspiring a life-long openness to cultural and religious pluralism. We would have been right there with President Washington and that synagogue leader in Newport, Rhode Island, in our fervent desire to move past religious tolerance into religious liberty as the law and expectation in this country of ours.
My struggle, and it is a question still awaiting answers, is this: How do I hold this value in tension with the limits of my own religious tolerance — when I see and experience dangerous and destructive beliefs and practices, and the abuse of religious liberty — when beliefs and practices are imposed on others, in liberty’s name. When we are no longer guests in each other’s faith homes, be them sanctuaries or airwaves, but in each other’s lives, in each other’s futures.
In the words of The Rev. Frank Holmes, again, from our Call to Worship:
Keep alive in us the sacred flame of indignation. Help us to say no to whatever is inhumane, that by our word and courage the forces of decency and fairness may be strengthened in our time.
To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.