Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, addresses the 2014 Global Peace Leadership Conference in Arlington, Virginia.
Faith leaders and “leaders of faith” from 20 states and 4 nations called for a renewal of American founding values to build social cohesion and meet the urgent domestic and international challenges confronting the country at the 2014 Global Peace Leadership Conference, America at a Crossroads: Leading Our Nation to Live Up to Its Founding Ideals, on September 19-21, 2014.
Addressing the conference, co-chairs Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University; Rev. Fred Luter, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Dr. Robert A. Schuller, co-chair of the Coalition for American Renewal, cited often under-recognized expressions of faith and respect for diverse religious traditions among the Founding Fathers. They also appealed to the assembled leaders to vigorously advocate faith perspectives in the public square and in policy debates.
Dr. Schuller movingly described an earlier crossroads of the nation’s history, during the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, when an American observer in a boat in the harbor during the long hours of British bombardment saw the American flag waving above the ramparts at the break of dawn and penned the words that would become the National Anthem. The Star Spangled Banner was then poignantly presented by Shannon Wise, Director of Liturgical Music at Herndon United Methodist Church, and harpist-Jamie Schermer.
Amb. Ahmed said that he came to Washington, DC in August 2001 as Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and was in class when the terrorists flew a hijacked passenger plane into the Pentagon just weeks later. “When that incident happened I realized over the course of the day that my life will completely change and I would have to give back to this great country that had been so generous,” Amb. Ahmed said. “But the big question was, what was this country and what does it stand for?”
“The American Founding Fathers are world figures. Why can’t people in China and India and Africa look up to these figures and say, ‘We too want to share these ideals.’”
When his sabbatical came up he took a year with his students and travelled the length and breadth of America and wrote a book, Journey to America.
“What I discovered amazed me, it stunned me,” he said. “Many don’t know, for example, there is a statue outside of the university Jefferson created, dated 1786, and it starts by mentioning the name of God for Christianity, Yahweh for Judaism, Allah for Islam, Brahma for Hinduism. Consider the date, 1786.”
Speaking to the conference in a recorded message, Rev. Luter said families, schools, churches and government are being affected by the erosion of values, and he thanked participants for undertaking the cause of American renewal. “I am convinced that the world will not get any better, society will not get any better, the nation will not get any better until believers stand up at the plate and become a light to the dark world and salt in a salt-less society.”
‘Ideal Greater than Heritage’
Other speakers made special note of the founding principles that enabled the nation to mature and transcend what has been called the “birth defect” of slavery. Rev. Dr. Deforest Blake ‘Buster’ Soaries Jr., former New Jersey Secretary of State and a senior Baptist pastor, said we sometimes we fail to recognize that America is the outgrowth of an ideal.
“The ideals were bigger than the capacity of the people who wrote the words [and] exceeded the capacity of the people to heed the words that were written,” he said. “The ideal is bigger than the heritage. If the ideal had not been bigger than the heritage we would have been trapped by the heritage. Our heritage may be flawed but our ideal comes from God, and the genius of America is our ability to self-correct.”
Dr. Matthew Spalding, Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs at Hillsdale College, observed that American history is a narrative based upon two documents, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. “The Declaration was a statement of principles,” Spalding told the conference participants. “American patriots wanted their rights as Englishmen; but you can’t beat the English King by claiming the rights of Englishmen. So they did something different. They looked behind that, reached back in history and they said ‘we are men and we are endowed with those rights and you can’t take them away.’
He said that the Declaration’s most important lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights . . .” significantly appealed to “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” and not any human author. Quoting Alexander Hamilton, Spaulding declared, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
Liberty, Virtue, and Faith
Global Peace Foundation President James Flynn called the American story “the human story,” and the founding “a turning point not only in American history but for all people in our journey together as human beings.” By grounding the new republic and national life in the “self-evident truth that all are endowed by the Creator with rights,” Flynn said, Americans could bring cohesion among peoples of increasingly diverse national, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“When we have confusion about values, we need to go back to the principles,” Flynn said. “Transcendent principles don’t need an argument to prove them; they are not religious doctrines, but self-evident,” which he illustrated with examples of the outpouring of compassion and relief efforts following the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
The Conference convened additional sessions for policy makers, civil society leaders and experts including “Family Values: Rebuilding Consensus out of Confusion,” “Civic Engagement for the Common Good: Promoting an American Culture of Service,” and “The Role of Faith Leaders in the Public Square.”
The 2014 Global Peace Leadership Conference was hosted in Arlington, Virginia by the Global Peace Foundation USA. For more information on the conference and the Coalition for American Renewal, contact Global Peace Foundation USA at [email protected]