“The current landscape of the nation has been darkened by storm clouds of hate speech, white nationalist ideology, bias-motivated violence, and rising intolerance,” according to a report of the Inclusive America Project titled Pluralism in Peril: Challenges to an American Ideal (Aspen Institute, 2018) sponsored by the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Meryl Justin Chertoff, Executive Director of The Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program, and to participate in a roundtable discussion of this issue at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center in Sterling. The interview can be found at https://tinyurl.com/yctqwxq6
Pluralism refers to the right of all Americans to practice their faith in freedom and security. As indicated from the quote of the Aspen Report in the opening sentence of this column, there are attacks on religious freedom from many directions and in many forms in recent years. Some even question the meaning of religious freedom in our country suggesting that they should have freedom of their religion—most often Christian religion—and not all those other practices that other people want to call religion. After all, the most extreme argue that this country was founded on a belief in God, meaning of course god as they define him or her in their religious beliefs.
A basic problem in defending American pluralism seems to me to be the ignorance on the part of some of basic constitutional protections and how they were secured. Virginia was settled as a land venture by investors who were looking for a way to make money in a colonial empire. First settlers were part of the state church of England as Anglicans or they had no religion at all. As more settlers arrived the minority religions such as Baptists started to arrive, and they objected to having part of their tax money go to the church. Religious conflict occurred as more settlers recognized an opportunity to free themselves from a state-imposed religion.
Soon after Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he wrote what became known as the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the most important piece of legislation ever passed in the Virginia legislature and I believe in any legislative body. Just as the Declaration had declared political and economic freedom from the mother country, the Statute of Religious Freedom in one sentence of more than 700 words declared in part that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
The challenges to our pluralism must be countered by our unwavering support of our own beliefs as well as the right of others to their own religious beliefs. As the report on pluralism found, “this work requires decency, sympathy, appreciative curiosity about difference, and concern for our shared beliefs.”