‘To big­otry no sanction, to per­se­cu­tion no as­sis­tance’

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - OPINION - By Charles C. Haynes

Eleven peo­ple dead, four wounded dur­ing Shab­bat morn­ing ser­vices at Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh. Stunned, sad­dened, sick at heart, a na­tion strug­gles once again to make sense of the sense­less.

Any mass mur­der is hor­rific and tragic, but as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said fol­low­ing the 2015 mas­sacre at Mother Emanuel Church, “There is some­thing par­tic­u­larly heart­break­ing about the death hap­pen­ing in a place in which we seek so­lace and we seek peace, in a place of wor­ship.”

The un­think­able is now com­mon­place in the “land of the free.” Just days be­fore the Tree of Life at­tack, a gun­man in Ken­tucky shot and killed two African Amer­i­cans at a gro­cery story af­ter fail­ing to force his way into a nearby black church.

Per­pet­u­a­tors of re­li­gious hate crimes in Amer­ica are ec­u­meni­cal. Syn­a­gogues, mosques, churches, tem­ples — all now tar­gets of van­dal­ism, as­saults and vi­o­lence. From the mas­sacre of six Sikhs in a Wis­con­sin tem­ple to the bomb­ing of a mosque in Min­nesota to the mur­der of 26 peo­ple in a Bap­tist church in Texas, a wave of vi­o­lence in re­cent years has spared no faith or creed.

It was not sup­posed to be this way. The prom­ise of re­li­gious free­dom in Amer­ica is the prom­ise — first and fore­most — of safety. Mil­lions have fled re­li­gious wars, per­se­cu­tion and re­pres­sion seek­ing a safe haven, a place where they could freely and openly prac­tice their faith with­out fear.

Our first pres­i­dent un­der­stood the power of this prom­ise. That is why soon af­ter his elec­tion Ge­orge Washington reached out to peo­ple of faith, es­pe­cially those in the mi­nor­ity. In a se­ries of let­ters writ­ten in 1790, he re­as­sured Quak­ers, Catholics, Bap­tists and Jews — all vic­tims of prej­u­dice in the New World — that they would be safe un­der a gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to re­li­gious free­dom.

Best known of these let­ters is Washington’s ad­dress to the He­brew Con­gre­ga­tion in New­port, R.I., cited more than once this week. This gov­ern­ment, the pres­i­dent de­clared, “gives to big­otry no sanction, to per­se­cu­tion no as­sis­tance.”

Break­ing from the prece­dents of his­tory, the United States has no estab­lished re­li­gion and guar­an­tees ev­ery cit­i­zen full free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion. “All pos­sess alike lib­erty of con­science and im­mu­ni­ties of ci­ti­zen­ship,” Washington wrote. “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.”

Does this prom­ise of free­dom now ring hol­low?

True, hate crimes against re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties in this coun­try are not new. Out­breaks of anti-Semitism, na­tivism and Is­lam­o­pho­bia are an ugly part of the Amer­i­can story.

But are we, as a na­tion, turn­ing a dark and dan­ger­ous cor­ner? Has the lan­guage of hate and fear — rhetoric that helps in­cu­bate a cul­ture of vi­o­lence — moved into the main­stream of po­lit­i­cal dis­course?

Does our gov­ern­ment still give “big­otry no sanction, per­se­cu­tion no as­sis­tance”? Or do politi­cians at the high­est level — greedy for power — now be­tray the prom­ise of re­li­gious free­dom, the prom­ise of a safe haven for all peo­ple?

Pres­i­dent Washington no doubt knew that our ex­per­i­ment in re­li­gious free­dom was frag­ile. That is why, per­haps, Washington closed his let­ter to the He­brew Con­gre­ga­tion with a prayer of hope and a vision of safety drawn from the Book of Micah:

“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 fig tree, 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.”

Charles C. Haynes is found­ing di­rec­tor of the Re­li­gious Free­dom Cen­ter.

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