Religious Liberty For All Is
Good For Jews

By Josh Hammer

            Many of the leading bastions of America’s progressive Jewish establishment cling to a fundamentally misbegotten conception of what religious liberty entails in our pluralistic, but historically Christian-centric, constitutional republic. Consider the leftist Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which publicly declares its commitment to “safeguard religious freedom for all Americans by protecting the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment.” Consider also the far-left Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), which similarly proclaims that “the principle of separation of church and state is best for both church and state and is indispensable for the preservation of that spirit of religious liberty which is a unique blessing of American democracy.”

            In placing such a clear and unmistakable emphasis on the notion of “separation of church and state,” the ADL and the RAC are summoning the long-dead spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to Connecticut’s Danbury Baptist association. In that letter, Jefferson opines that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment combine to “build[] a wall of separation between Church & State.” But Jefferson, as every high school civics student learns, was not even present during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Ever the Francophile, Jefferson was instead gallivanting off in pre-revolutionary France during that sweltering Philadelphia summer. Jefferson instead left it to his fellow Virginians — namely Convention president George Washington and leading visionary James Madison — to help draft a new governmental charter.

Furthermore, while the Bill of Rights was not proposed until two years following the end of the Convention, there is ample historical evidence that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — had an original public meaning that is inconsistent with the views of the ADL and the RAC. Indeed, as the constitutional scholar Philip Hamburger has persuasively argued, the Establishment Clause “say[s] nothing about separation of church and state, and therefore notwithstanding the claims made on behalf of separation, there is reason to believe it is not the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.” On the contrary, public religiosity was never understood, at the time of the Founding, as inconsistent in any way with American ideals. Three days after the First Amendment was submitted to the states for ratification, Congress established a public day of Thanksgiving which, a mere five days later, President Washington explained as a “public thanks-giving and prayer” based upon “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”

But even on a deeper and more profound level, the innate hostility toward public and overt religiosity demonstrated by progressive “separation[ists]” such as the ADL and the RAC is ultimately a betrayal of even narrower Jewish religious liberty interests. The George Washington who helped push the ratification of the First Amendment and declared Thanksgiving as a day to “acknowledge … Almighty God” is the same man who wrote the following timeless and awe-inspiring 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:

[H]appily 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. … May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. 

America, at its core, is truly an inherently philo-Semitic nation that is composed of a philo-Semitic people. But the astute observer will recognize that the reason our constitutional republic has always been so friendly toward Jewish religious liberty interests is not necessarily due to any peculiar or idiosyncratic philo-Semitism held by our Founding Fathers or contemporary ruling class. Rather, the reason our First Amendment and subsequent legal and cultural customs have always cherished Jewish religious liberty is the precise same reason our First Amendment and subsequent legal and cultural customs have always cherished religious liberty for all minority religions: America has an all-encompassing commitment to valuing and recognizing religious liberty for everyone.

As Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty General Counsel Howard Slugh and I recently explained in our chapter for a Sutherland Institute religious liberty symposium, broader conceptions of religious liberty for all tend to disproportionately favor religious liberty for minority religions. As we wrote: “Adherents of minority faiths are uniquely likely to find their practices restricted by government. This is true whether the majority targets their ‘unusual’ practices, or whether it inadvertently passes laws that conflict with religious obligations that it may not recognize or understand.” We also noted that religious minorities “are at a further disadvantage because they will often lack the political power necessary to block or repeal such laws.” If America were to accede to a legal framework whereby governmental actors do not broadly defer to religious adherents’ own conceptions of the sincere nature of their beliefs and customs requiring constitutional or statutory protection, such a delegation of power to politicians and courts would disproportionately redound against the interests of all religious minorities. Jews, like Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and others, benefit the most when a robust conception of religious liberty for all is recognized and respected as the prevailing legal and cultural norm.

It is America’s Founding-era creed of earnest commitment to religious liberty for all that has made it such a welcoming and promising prospect for subsequent generations of American Jews. Progressive “separation[ists],” such as the ADL and the RAC, seek to undermine that longstanding consensus. But such societal opposition to public religiosity and hostility to religion, in general, has historically never proven beneficial to the health, safety, and security of the Jewish people. Such hostility, furthermore, betrays an even more foundational ideal: Gratitude. Prior to the 1948 re-establishment of a sovereign Jewish entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the Jewish people have never had a more welcoming nation-state than they have always had in these United States. Unfortunately, ungrateful progressive “separation[ists]” misunderstand why that is the case.

Josh Hammer is editor-at-large of The Daily Wire and of counsel at First Liberty Institute, the Texas-based religious liberty legal defense firm. Josh also assists with the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.  Twitter: @josh_hammer