Earlier this week I was honored to receive an award from the New York Board of Rabbis. In my brief expression of appreciation, I relayed the story of the visit to New York a few years back by Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Dialogue with Judaism.
The cardinal related to me how he had earlier visited a synagogue in the city, and, while waiting to enter a meeting, took a look at the congregation’s bulletin board. There he noticed an announcement by the rabbi that, due to the repair work going on at a nearby mosque, the Islamic community from that center had been invited to hold their Friday prayers in the synagogue! The cardinal was so shocked—pleasantly!—that he asked the rabbi about it.
“Sure,” the rabbi replied. “Why wouldn’t we invite them in? They’re neighbors, and we get along fine. They’d do the same for us.”
As Cardinal Koch told me that story, he had tears in his eyes. “You realize, Timothy, this could only happen in America.”
Do we realize the gift we have in our beloved country, religious liberty? We all get along! We respect one another! We work together!
OK, sure, there are fringe groups who are into exclusion, division, and less-than-benign sentiments towards other faiths. But they are rare; they are a tiny minority.
This concord among religions, such a part of this republic, is especially vivid in New York. I admit that it wasn’t always that way, as one of my predecessors, Archbishop John Hughes, had to count on his parishioners to defend the Cathedral from nativist mobs.
That’s over, as now rabbis, imams, bishops, and ministers can be found working closely together on issues such as neighborhood renewal, mental health, crime, gangs, drug abuse, racism, pro-life, and the defense of immigrants, just to name some community challenges that rally us.
The amity and collaboration we relish here in New York cannot be taken for granted. As is evident in the news each day, other countries of the world see religious belief often perverted to espouse violence, hatred, extremism, and persecution. As Pope Francis has often observed, such hatred comes, not from God, but from Satan. To call this religion, the Holy Father claims, is a lie.
Such partnership among the creeds of this great country also reminds us how religion builds up our society, how it promotes the common good, and how essential it is that people of faith have a place in the public square. The First Amendment, which places freedom of religion as number one, protects the churches from intrusion by the government, not the government from religion.
Yet, there are those who consider people of faith dangerous to our country, who caricature them as bigots, and who insist that people must leave their deepest convictions in their parishes, churches, temples, or mosques.
Religion is indeed personal; however, by its very nature, it is not private.
The freedom to let our faith inspire and guide our actions and decisions is an essential part of the nation whose birthday we will soon celebrate.
How moving to see last Friday, only two days after the attack on the Republican ball team at practice, and the critical wounding of Congressman Stephen Scalise, members of both parties kneeling in prayer before the game began on Friday. How American!
Last October, at the Al Smith Dinner, as I waited at the end of the line with the two presidential candidates, I took a dare. The evening’s climate was already chilly, as I could not but notice that both candidates had avoided each other in the pre-dinner receiving line. As the three of us waited while the rest of the dais was introduced, I took the two candidates in hand, moved to a corner, and invited them to pray with me. Both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump took my invitation seriously, as they both bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and said “Amen” as I concluded. Then they both looked up, smiled, shook each other’s hand, and paid one another a compliment!
That’s religious liberty!
That’s what makes this country great!
Way back when Andrew Jackson was president, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States and kept a journal. His observations, still influential, have been hailed as the most perceptive description of the genius and promise of America ever written. The author asked himself how a country so vast, so diverse, so open to everybody, so bold, under a constitution so daring and unprecedented, could ever survive. His answer? Because the American people are religious!
Happy Birthday, America!