Cherished Rights

David Saperstein November/December 2009

I thank you very much, and to receive an award from you is a special pleasure. Liberty magazine is a source not only of pride to Seventh-day Adventists, but a resource that’s been invaluable to all of us who work on behalf of religious liberty. That’s very special. . . .

America is an extraordinary country. It was founded on a revolutionary notion of humankind for its role in the world. Before the creation of America, the rights of people in Europe were subservient rights, derivative rights, rights that accrued to them by dint of membership in some group beyond themselves. America turned the relationship of the group, the community, and the individual on its head, arguing that the rights we have come from within, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights amongst them—life, liberty, freedom. The right to determine our destiny, pursuit of happiness. The right to say what we want and worship the way we want. The right to publish what we want, associate with people who share our views, petition the government for redress of

grievances. Later in our history, to be free of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, national origin, gender. Fundamental, God-given rights! The government doesn’t give them to us, and it doesn’t take them away from us.

I don’t know how many of you have ever had the pleasure to eat in the House of Representatives dining room. But if you do, take a look at an inscription above the door on the way in. It’s unattributed, but I’ll tell you it comes from Thomas Jefferson. It says, “Man was not made for the state; rather, was state made for man. And only by the consent of the justly governed does the state exist.” It’s a revolutionary notion. And what this means for us as religious minorities in America is that this was the first nation in the history of the world that created a country which because of the three parts of religion dealt with in the Constitution—no religious test for office, freedom of religion, no establishment of religion—this was the first nation that promised that your rights as a citizen, and your privileges and opportunities, would not depend upon your religious identity, your religious practices, your religious beliefs. What an extraordinary, revolutionary notion that was!

And yes, it took us generations to get there, like many of the rights promised in our founding documents. But in the last 70 years the Supreme Court greatly expanded the understanding of what separation of church and state meant in a way that enhanced religious liberty and what religious liberty meant. So this was the first country in which it does not matter if all 535 members of the Congress, nine members of the Supreme Court, the president of the United States—I used to say, in the last administration, even the vice president of the United States—believes that the way you worship is incorrect. It doesn’t matter if all 300 million Americans believe that what you have to say is incorrect. So long as your exercise of your rights does not infringe upon anyone else’s, you have the unalienable right to worship the way you want, to say what you want.

And we cherish those rights. Not in the abstract, we cherish those rights precisely because they are the indispensable sine qua non of democracy. Without the free marketplace of ideas, democracy cannot thrive. It cannot survive. That is what America’s all about. And because of that vision, we have known more freedoms as religious minorities in this country, more freedoms, more rights, more opportunities than we’ve known anywhere else in the world.

But we know even here in this country it is not fully protected. And of course, there are challenges across the globe. Think about it—across the globe! That includes the people who today have to live in and worship in underground catacombs, lest authorities discover who they are and punish their devotion to an Authority beyond the state. That includes the Christian mothers, searching for the missing sons who have been kidnapped and converted. It includes the Buddhist monks in reeducation camps. It includes the Seventh-day Adventists facing repression in Turkmenistan. It includes the Muslims persecuted for being the wrong kinds of Muslims. And it includes Jews tried on trumped-up charges of espionage. They are from every region and race, and they cry out to us. As Representative Cleaver said, they cry out to us to stand with them and be with them [Representative Cleaver, Democrat from Missouri, gave a keynote speech at the same 7th Annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington, D.C.].

From left to right: Seventh-day Adventist Church legislative liaison Barry Bussey, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

We face challenges here as well. Just one word on separation of church and state. It is, the framers believed, indispensable to religious freedom, and it remains so today. There are going to be issues on which we may disagree in the religious liberty field, some who think that Justice Warren Burger’s interpretations went too far, some who think they were just right and remain indispensable. There are battles over funding, and there are battles over prayer and when it can be said. There are battles over the posting of the Ten Commandments in our classrooms, in our public squares, religious symbols. We may not agree on all of it, but the general architecture of the need to keep government out of religion, religion as a moral goad to government but not as an integral part of government, is indispensable to religious freedom.

Of course, on that debate over the Ten Commandments, the classic question is, “Whose Ten Commandments is it going to be?” Is it going to be yours, going to be mine, going to be the Catholic version, going to be the original in the minds of some folks in the Christian community, the King James Version? Yeah, I once offered to debate with Jerry Falwell, “Why don’t we go back to the original Hebrew?” He was not satisfied with that. And of course, the truth is, if we convey to our children and our families, our homes, our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, the meaning of the Ten Commandments and inscribe them on our hearts, then our classrooms will be more moral places. But if all the Ten Commandments become is a kind of visual Muzak sitting on the wall behind us, stripped of its meaning, it’ll do as much for morality in our classrooms as the Gideon Bibles have done for morality in our motel rooms!

The bottom line is, there are those in the Far Right in America who would argue that separation of church and state is anti-God or anti-religious. Nothing is further from the truth. It is that wall that has kept government out of religion that has allowed religion to flourish with the diversity of strength in America unmatched anywhere in the Western democratic world. Far more people going regularly to worship, far more people believing in God (90 percent of Americans), far more people seeing religious values are central to their lives (85 percent of the American people) than in any democratic country that has a government-sponsored, government-preferred, government-established religion.

We have known more freedoms, and we must fight to preserve them. That’s what you do, day in and day out. May God bless you in the continued success of that work, for on your shoulders and your work not only is the religious freedom of all the members of your own family, the Seventh-day Adventist family, but the destiny of all of us. For we are all bound up one with the other. In the end we will triumph together or we will fail together. But yours is an awesome agenda that can transcend challenges and smash limitations until religious freedom is the birthright of every human being everywhere. Bless you in that work.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is an attorney who teaches at Georgetown University Law School. He is also co-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is a ubiquitous and effective proponent of religious freedom and a very public media face to its defense. He gave these remarks in accepting an award of recognition from Liberty magazine editor Lincoln Steed at the 7th Annual Religious Liberty Dinner, held June 18, 2009, at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C.


Article Author: David Saperstein