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.