Christmas is drawing near. Hanukkah has just concluded. Amid the hustle and bustle of the season, have you stopped to consider the religious liberty which enables participants of either holiday (or both holidays) to celebrate alongside each other in freedom?
For most countries during the time of our nation’s founding—and even in some American colonies before the Constitution—a state religion was the norm. Even when the presence of Jewish congregations and minority Christian denominations were tolerated, they were not always equally free to live out their faith in every aspect of life.
The nationwide religious liberty outlined in the First Amendment, then, was unprecedented. It was a breath of fresh air for the citizens of our country, especially those who did not hold to the prevailing religious views of their particular state.
Everyone was free to worship as they desired.
The significance of this revolutionary policy is reflected in the warm correspondence between a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island and newly-elected President George Washington. When Washington visited the state in 1790, congregants of the Touro Synagogue in Newport greeted him with this address:
“For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men—beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life.”
Washington responded with similar warmth and a strong affirmation of religious liberty under the Constitution:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation . . . 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.”
Washington believed we should be able to perform our duties as citizens of this country (“rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”), without sacrificing our duties to God (“rendering unto God the things that are God’s”).
The founding fathers’ dedication to religious liberty enabled all Americans to be free to live out their faith—which included celebrating biblical holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah.
For that freedom to continue in America, we must uphold it.
Once highly regarded by almost every elected official and candidate, religious liberty is now being eroded by those who deny the right of people of faith to conduct their business or ministry according to their religious beliefs. Some instances of the free exercise of religion have also been labeled an attempt to establish a state religion. Remember when the right of public school students and teachers to say “Merry Christmas” was in question?
The continued enjoyment of religious liberty is largely dependent on the commitment of elected officials at all levels of government. We have seen what happens when the First Amendment is twisted into a weapon against those simply desiring to live out their faith. As we celebrate this season and approach the coming new (election) year, let’s remember the blessing this vital freedom has brought, and resolve to uphold it.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people . . . that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear.” - Luke 1:68, 74