- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access the Harper’s archive
ALERT: Usernames and passwords from the old Harpers.org will no longer work. To create a new password and add or verify your email address, please sign in to customer care and select Email/Password Information. (To learn about the change, please read our FAQ.)
On Saturday, we learned that the controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, has, in the assessment of the newspaper of record, become the burning question of the day. The issue was given the lead position in the day’s newspaper, overtaking even reports from Rhinebeck about the pending wedding of Chelsea Clinton which were then dominating the broadcast media.
On August 17, 1790, the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, Moses Seixas, penned an important letter to the president of the United States. Drawing attention to the devastation suffered by the once prosperous seaport, Seixas also addressed the question of freedom of religion and expressed a hope about what America would become:
a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: – deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine: – This so ample and extensive federal union whose basis is Philanthropy, mutual confidence, and public virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatsoever seemeth [to Him] good.
And to this George Washington replied, providing his correspondent the honor of a flattering echo of the original:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 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. 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.
The Times report from Saturday brings us some voices that recall those of Moses Seixas, including Rabbi Irwin Kula and C. Welton Gaddy. But it also brings us the louder voices of intolerance, including the increasingly shrill leader of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who does an honest job only in characterizing his own comments:
“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
American citizens do indeed have the right to be irrational and bigoted. But, as George Washington explained, they do not have the right to oppress their fellow citizens by institutionalizing their bigotry in government action. And, as Moses Seixas explained, those who have survived deprivation and oppression will find better solace in a faith that counsels compassion and community rather than the repression of those of a differing confession.
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — April 12, 2013, 11:11 am
A new report from Seton Hall University exposes government surveillance of attorney-client conversations
Rashid Khalidi on how the United States sustains the failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process
Alex Gibney on his documentary investigating the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of child sex-abuse cases
Lucas Mann on hope and change in a minor-league-baseball city
Minimum number of baboons forced to smoke crack in a 1989 study testing the efficacy of cigarettes as a drug delivery device:
A reduction in distrust toward atheists was documented among pious Canadians who are reminded of the Vancouver police.
A Missouri cinema apologized for hiring an actor dressed in body armor and carrying a fake rifle to appear at a screening of Iron Man 3.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Winner of the 2012 Olivier Rebbot Award for best photographic reporting from abroad in magazines or books