Kirby Center, Hillsdale College, Washington, DC
A cross-section of American faith and civic leaders assembled for two days of meetings in Washington DC and Virginia to address growing concerns about the erosion of First Amendment freedoms in the United States. Gathering on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 at the Kirby Center of Hillsdale College in Washington DC, and at the Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton, Virginia the following day, the leaders worked to develop strategies to raise public awareness of First Amendment rights and encourage broader civic education as the foundation for responsible citizenship.
The two-day meeting led by Global Peace Foundation-USA was a follow-up of a closed-door summit in September 2015 that laid the groundwork by assessing the threat to First Amendment freedoms, assembling committed leaders, and developing preliminary strategic planning for the launch of a First Amendment Coalition.
In welcoming remarks, Dr. Matthew Spaulding, Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs at Hillsdale College in Washington, said it can be difficult to understand the significance of the First Amendment and religious freedom. He said the idea that you could have your own faith and practice was not established in political practice at the time of America’s Founding.
Spaulding reflected on the significance of a letter from George Washington to a Jewish congregation, the first time a head of state officially wrote a letter to a congregation of Jews. “Think about that,” he said. “The most persecuted religious minority receives a letter from the first president of the United States in which he said you don’t have your freedoms here as a matter of ‘toleration,’ but as a matter of right.”
At the time of the founding, as today, many saw religions as a source of conflict, Spaulding said. Therefore, some argued we had to diminish its authority in the public square. “But the framers rejected that option. They wanted to design a way to keep religion very much involved in public life, but avoid the problems historically associated with established religion. They wanted a formal separation of church and state, but this is widely misunderstood today. They wanted a separation by which the state would not dictate religious beliefs but at the same time a particular religion would not dictate laws by which we govern ourselves. Such a formal separation would actually encourage a flourishing interaction between religion and politics writ large, because politics was grounded on a certain understanding of moral truth.”
Global Peace Foundation International President James Flynn suggested that “we have something of an identity crisis about the meaning of being an American. The Global Peace Foundation (GPF), he said, “looks from a bigger perspective of what America’s role is, recognizing that the uniqueness of the American experiment is based on principles, a compact. Ultimately, the end is self-governing virtuous citizens who can live together, connected based on first principles. We need to have a robust civil society to debate those principles. First Amendment rights are foundation for living responsibly.”
Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, warned that there is a serious religious freedom challenge facing this country. “Many are willing to say freedom is fine in your service but when you go into the square you no longer have that freedom,” he said. He added that religious freedom has to be established in concrete experience and not just as an abstraction. In a multifaith, multiethnic society, different religious communities have very different practices that need to be acknowledged and protected. Also, he said houses of worship and religious nonprofits are scattered across the country and these institutions need to gain their voice.
Representing Korean and Latino Christian congregations, Hyepin C. Im, President of Korean Churches for Community Development and Roy Mendoza, Faith Manager at The LIBRE Institute, brought perspectives shared by ethnic minorities that are part of the faith tapestry of the nation. Hyepin Im reflected on the internal tension of dedication to personal faith and willingness to reach out and find common ground with those of different faiths.
She said Azerbaijan, a 95 percent Muslim nation, welcomes all faiths and even supports their houses of worship. “When I heard that I wondered if I could support that, building a house of worship for another faith. We need to remember, Jesus first went to the temple to give freedom to the captive, sight to blind. Our goal as Christians is to bring freedom and not oppression.”
Roy Mendoza said the mission of protecting liberty must be ecumenical. Lack of cohesion has allowed others to compromise the Christian mission. “In the Latino community, 95 percent are Christian,” he said. “People come to this country and become part of a common group, seeking economic prosperity, and those all depend on freedom, and above all the First Amendment. Most sermons don’t really touch on current issues so people are not educated on civics or issues.”
Following these remarks, the roundtable opened for discussion on issues of First Amendment education, faith-based solutions to address societal problems, First Amendment defense in the public square, promotion of policies to protect and preserve First Amendment rights, and practical strategies to engage media and communications.
Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society of the Heritage Foundation, focusing on religious liberty, marriage, and life issues, presented a brief summary of some of the issues relating to religious freedom, freedom of conscience and public support for faith based initiatives that are in ongoing litigation.
At the conclusion of the roundtable, the working meeting transferred to the Airlie Conference Center, some 40 miles west of Washington in the Virginia Piedmont region, where some participants continued strategic discussions with the goal of formulating clear action steps to implement a First Amendment Coalition.
Airlie Conference Center, Warrenton, Virginia
Dr. Paul Murray, co-chairman of the Coalition for American Renewal, welcomed the arrivals at an evening program and asked each participant to introduce themselves and answer one question: “What would you tell your 12-year-old son or daughter about what it means to be an American?”
This simple question drew thoughtful and moving responses from the diverse participants, some with generations of history as Americans, others as recent immigrants or political refugees.
From the story of a startled American’s reaction to a penny retrieved from the ground by a naturalized Afghan woman because the sacred motto “In God We Trust” should never be ignored or trampled underfoot, to noted Christian leader Dr. Robert Schuller’s recollection of joining hands with President George W. Bush, Colin Powell and other leaders in the White House in the days following the September 11 attacks, the exercise was an opportunity for profound reflections on the meaning of American heritage. It was also an effective gateway to the task at hand, upholding that heritage in an environment that increasingly threatens some of the basic freedoms that were cherished by all.
GPF International President James Flynn then provided context for later discussions with an overview of the role of principles and values in America’s founding, and a historical perspective to show how those principles and values enabled the nation to overcome the flaw of slavery and advance freedom and justice for all Americans as an ongoing ideal.
The following morning, program coordinator and GPF USA President Alan Inman said the object of the meeting was to expand earlier planning meetings with clear conclusions and action steps based on the experience and commitment of those present in the room. Following open-floor discussions that brought up examples of growing intolerance of religious practices and faith perspectives in public life, Dr. Paul Murry presented a proposal for a social media project: “How American Are You?” that would engage youth in particular with interactive challenges in developing awareness of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The challenge to engage youth is formidable, and several people made suggestions to enliven the challenge and make it appealing to millennials.
Significant time was made for the key process of the gathering, working sessions among small groups to propose action steps for a First Amendment campaign that could be presented to the whole group.
Following more than two hours of discussions, retired Army Colonel and Homeland Security expert Steve Miska led a session to summarize the conclusions.
Recalling ground combat in Iraq, he said, “There are no atheists in combat. When the chaplain lays hands on you when going “outside the wire” it is a powerful thing. Complacency and apathy make spirituality in civilian life much more difficult. Here we’re ‘inside the wire’ and we need to plan the concrete steps to inspire young people, that brings them in and give them ownership of this country.”
The meeting adjourned with thanks expressed to all participants, who came from across the country and committed their efforts to lay the foundation for an effective First Amendment campaign to secure the freedoms enshrined in America’s Founding documents, but ultimately endowed to all people as inherent rights from the Creator.