U.S. still waging fight for religious freedom

July 30, 2011 

Our family summer vacation included a few days touring Williamsburg, Va. Many have visited the charming 17th and 18th century Colonial town, which was once the capital of Virginia.

There are two ways to approach a stroll through Williamsburg streets. One is to see the sights of the times. The second is to imagine the political environment -- including the ideas that leaders propagated for a New World -- inside these quaint and picturesque buildings. The best way, of course, is to combine them both in order to really grasp that feel and the temperament of that era in American history.

The issue of deciding the role of religion in the public arena was no less controversial then as it remains today. Just imagine people such as Thomas Jefferson who studied at the College of William and Mary and, according to one historian, referred to Williamsburg as "Devilsburg" because of the reputation it had for partying and revelry.

In Colonial times, the Anglican Church was the established religious institution of Virginia. And the Virginia House of Burghess was struggling then with how it would accommodate other Christian groups and keep the peace. Jefferson, a state legislator, composed the Virginia statute for religious freedom, which was eventually enacted in 1786.

Jefferson also was most famously known as the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence. In it, he set out to establish two fundamental teachings which are that "all men are created equal," and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But even though Jefferson helped lead this nation in its formative period, he did not necessarily practice all the lofty ideals they passionately believed in. Jefferson, for example, owned slaves despite his high-minded principles.

Americans are still struggling to interpret these principles that God endowed us with rights and that government must operate under the framework that all citizens are equal to each other. Sitting in a Williamsburg coffee house, I sat and imagined these leaders discussing these ideas. Their struggle to grant religious freedom for minority religions still resonates for us today.

Did they think that there would be millions of Jews, Catholics, Muslims and myriad denominations of Protestant Christianity in this country? Probably not. Could they have foreseen that demographic reality? What they might have envisioned is that the world would take seriously the promise the Declaration of Independence represented to Americans. To that extent history proved they were right.

But have we lost sight of that vision? Politicians love to refer to the nation's fathers and interpret them as if they knew them well and confirm their words to support a political position. That is a dangerous tact when it comes to revisionist politicking of our nation's history. Moral issues of the day require that we should learn from our past and not distort it to justify any political policy.

Our history has many examples of the struggle for religious freedom. I grew up in Maryland and remember the slogan on the license plate that read, "The Free State." Maryland was the first state to allow Roman Catholics, vilified by the early Protestant churches in the north, to worship freely. Jews have their own story of state legislatures and city ordinances that discriminated against Jewish participation in the life of the community even after the American Revolution. Many other religions in this country can give their tales of experiencing discrimination in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I cannot say what Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington would have said about the new faith traditions that have arrived in America. Their generation of the Enlightenment in the 18th century propagated a vision that God bestowed upon us qualities that were to be for the betterment of the world. They were not atheists, but they understood that religion, without a wall between church and state, would poison the experiment of democracy in the new world. Scripture and religious traditions belonged to the private world and communities of the people. No one perspective or doctrine could be the official religious doctrine or institution of the nation.

Many struggle with that balance of religion and state and the diversity of religions in America to this very day. This is why clergy should step up and lead toward meeting with each other on a regular basis and getting to know each other. How else can we forge ahead to protect those sacred rights that were preserved for us to be safeguarded for the future?

The world of Williamsburg and Jefferson is a good reminder of where we came from and how far we have progressed since colonial times. Our nation's first leaders wanted to give this New World a chance at reinventing itself without the bondage of hatred and religious intolerance that caused so much war and destruction in the Middle Ages in Europe. That is why America is supposed to be different. Religious freedom is an example of American exceptionalism where every person can practice their faith tradition in total freedom and without discrimination. We should never take that right for granted.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter at @rabbibloom.

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