I’m really into life lists. I’m working on lists of birds, rocks, shells, bugs, lighthouses, mountains and rivers. I want to see, climb, kayak, collect or experience as many of them as I can before I die.
This past Christmas, my mother gave me a book, “Passport to your National Parks,” which details the many parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites and memorials in America. There’s probably a thousand places.
On a recent trip to visit my mother in Rhode Island, we got the book out and saw what the Ocean State had to offer. The only one open in the winter was the Touro Synagogue in Newport, the oldest synagogue in America and a National Historic Site. It was a good place to start what may be the ultimate life list.
I love Jewish history. I lived in Israel for two short periods in the 1990s and studied Israeli history in college. My mom is equally interested in Jewish culture. And we both learned a lot during the visit. What surprised us was how the issues that worried the Touro Synagogue’s early members are still echoing today.
To make a long history short, the synagogue’s elders wrote a letter to President George Washington in 1790, shortly after the founding of the American republic, seeking clarification regarding how Jews would be treated under the new government. Washington replied within a few days, and his answer eased their minds. He wrote, in part:
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
These sentiments were written before the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – which gives us freedoms of speech and religion – was written in 1791. Washington was pledging that the government would support every American’s choice to worship, or not.
I find two things from Washington’s quote relevant to today’s discussion about religion in America.
First, Washington wasn’t too impressed with the word “tolerance.” Washington was referring to the Toleration Act of 1636, which was a precursor to the First Amendment and mandated religious freedom for Trinitarian Christians in the colony of Maryland, a predominantly Catholic colony in a land ruled by an Anglican king. Whereas that Act was finding its directive and authority in a human source – the King of England, who ruled over the American colonies – Washington and other Founders believed that religious freedom originates in our relationship with the Creator. The Creator bestows freedom, not man.
To paraphrase Washington, “tolerance” is a top-down kind of approach. It’s the notion of a higher class putting up with a lower class. Washington was telling the Newport Jews that it’s not a more powerful social class or the government that can bestow freedoms (and take them away just as easily); it’s a person’s natural rights as children of God that grants them freedom. That was revolutionary thinking, which took power away from the government.
Just as those Newport Jews worried about their new government, Muslims and those protesting on their behalf today are worried about the new Trump administration. But unlike those Jews who had to take Washington at his word, isn’t it nice to know we live in a nation based on laws, not men? Our rights are not the result of what a particular president wants, it’s what the Constitution allows.
Secondly, it’s noteworthy that Washington qualified his statement regarding religious freedom by adding, “should they demean themselves as good citizens.” In other words, you can’t use religion as a defense for acting badly. You can’t, for example, have jihadi ties and expect to gain citizenship. Americans are afforded rights only if they follow the law. It’s a two-way street.
To bring this into the modern day, Trump is being maligned as anti-Muslim. While I don’t know his heart, I would argue that his actions so far instead show he’s trying to prevent jihadis from entering the country. But if the protesters and pundits are right and he is truly anti-Islam, our founding documents would prevent him or any president or Congress from fulfilling any anti-Islam acts.
The Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and also this historically important letter from Washington to the Touro Synagogue membership 225 years ago, provide the bedrock that ensures our God-given rights are unalienable and unassailable.
That should be reassuring for all Americans.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.