Add America to the stories of Easter, Exodus

Sunday, April 23, 2000

At the start of a week holy to both Christians and Jews, I sat down at a table with representatives from both groups to talk about the state of moral and spiritual education in our nation's public and private schools.

Later in the week, those present at the meeting returned home to sit at separate tables for the Passover Seder and the Lord's Supper.

That's the genius of the American arrangement under the First Amendment. While we sit down at different tables to observe our ultimate religious commitments, that doesn't prevent us from gathering at a single civic table in order to work together as citizens for the common good.

During the meeting about schools, no one was asked to compromise his or her deep religious commitments. But all agreed to seek common ground in service of the common good.

In some respects, we had no choice but to reach out to one another across our differences. After all, the moral dilemmas facing our youth cut across all religious groups. And the challenges of growing religious diversity touch the lives of students and teachers in all schools and communities.

But without the framework created by the First Amendment, it's doubtful that we would come to the civic table in the first place. If history is any guide, only a constitutional commitment to religious freedom prevents one group from seeking dominance over others.

Most Americans don't give this arrangement a second thought. But in light of the long and painful history of relations between religions — especially between the two biblical traditions — the fact that Americans can work together as citizens one day and then freely practice our faith the next is one of humankind's most remarkable achievements.

That's why, to the miracle stories of Exodus and Easter, we might add a third: the story of America, the first nation to defy historical precedent by creating a society where religious liberty is guaranteed for people of all faiths and none.

The magnitude of this guarantee has not been lost on America's Jewish community. The Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., put it this way in an address to President Washington in 1790:

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty dispenser of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People. A Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.”

After centuries of bloody pogroms and inquisitions rooted in virulent anti-Semitism, Jews understand better than most the blessings of religious liberty. And with the persistence of anti-Semitism in our society and the current upsurge in hate groups, they also are alert to the necessity for constant vigilance in the cause of liberty.

In his reply to the Hebrew Congregation, Washington gave the earliest and best definition of the new nation's concept of religious freedom: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

The president ended his letter with a biblical reference that beautifully expressed the promise and the hope of the American experiment in liberty.

“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”