Ever since I was a kid, I’ve remembered Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings of The Four Freedoms. Rockwell painted these iconic images during the height of World War II and they were published in The Saturday Evening Post after the US government declined to use them as part of its wartime publicity effort. Rockwell, so quintessentially American in his artistry, said he was inspired to develop the series after hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the four freedoms, delivered on January 16, 1941.
Rockwell’s paintings depicted Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Freedom to Worship shows people gathered in prayer. These are traditional people, they seem to all be Caucasian, and they are praying in different ways. But for the time in which Rockwell painted these images, he was illustrating something important about one of the core values on which the United States was founded, one of the values we hold most dear — that we may pray in different ways, but having the right to do so is a core American value.
More than sixty years later, the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church was presented with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal, honoring Church’s work in lifting up the values that Roosevelt proclaimed where essential in nurturing a flourishing democracy. Several years before being so honored, Church, in his 2004 sermon “Choose Your Enemies Carefully,” delivered at All Souls Church in New York City, focused on religious freedom as he asked, what is it to be a complete human being? Not first “…a Jew or Palestinian. Not a Christian or Muslim first. Or an American first, but a complete human being. Seeing our own tears in one another’s eyes. Recognizing that we have so much more in common than could ever possibly divide us. We are all alike mysteriously born, fated to die, the mortar of mortality binding us fast to one another, the same sun setting on each of our horizons. We all want and need love, and security, and freedom, and acceptance. We need others’ forgiveness and understanding. All of us do. We ache in the same way. We bleed in the same way. At times, we all feel awkward and unworthy and inadequate. And we all fail at times to hearken to the better angels of our nature.”
In wading into the current controversy about a proposed Mosque to be erected blocks from the site of the tragic September 11, 2001, violence that destroyed the World Trade Center, President Barack Obama sought to affirm our freedom to worship as we choose, and to build houses of worship as we will. He said, “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”
Politicans caught up in tough election battles are now distancing themselves from Obama’s speech, and nearly every pundit or politico is being asked his or her opinion on the question of the Mosque. CNN reports that nearly seventy percent of Americans polled are opposed to the Mosque being built on the proposed site. This is deeply disturbing, and should send a shiver down the spine of every conscientious American. Freedom to worship means religious freedom for all people – those with whom you agree and those with whom you don’t. The 2001 attacks on our country were unspeakably horrible, and they were carried out by people intent on undermining our country’s fiber. But the people who carried out the attacks do not represent one faith tradition. They were a group of individuals, and their religion, and their houses of worship, must not be condemned in a wholesale manner.
It was Pastor Martin Niemöller who said, during the time Roosevelt gave his speech: “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” These words remind us of our responsibility to speak out, and to act in support of freedom. Our commitment as Americans must be to uphold the values on which our country was built. And I have no question that if Forrest Church were alive today, he would be speaking out forcefully on this topic.
We are witnesses to history now, as in earlier times. Forrest Church reminds us: “To whatever extent we place our primary identification with creed or nation, with race or gender, with school or party, we betray our common humanity. Party to faction, we are prey to the beguiling logic of division, the logic of retribution and judgment, the logic of brotherly hate. In short, we live in a state not of grace, but of sin.”
We have an opportunity, with the question of whether a Mosque should be built in New York City, to choose grace; to choose love; to extend a hand to those who worship differently, but who are our sisters and brothers all the same. Let us affirm this most essential freedom, and in so doing, re-affirm the values on which this country was built.
Freedom to Worship, by Norman Rockwell: