On July 4, 2017, Rabbi David N. Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, gave the keynote address at the 55th Annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony on Monticello's West Lawn before a crowd over 2,000 people in attendance, including 70 individuals who would become America's newest citizens.
[The bracketed sections were omitted in the actual presentation due to time limitations.]
To those of you who do such wonderful work at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, President Leslie Greene Bowman, Chairman Don King and Ann Taylor and the Foundation’s dedicated staff – my profound gratitude for the invitation to participate in this inspiring ceremony—at once so redolent with reverence and awe for the best of America’s past and so pregnant with hope for a still better future.
[And a special word of appreciation to our public servants and our military who have joined us today—and most especially to the members of our judiciary, who day and day out, strive to keep the flame of American justice burning brightly.]
E Pluribus Unum….Three Latin words that became the official motto of the Seal of United States of America—“out of many, one.” That is America—out of many, one: A nation with diverse native populations enriched with the refugees and migrants from virtually every other nation on the face of the Earth. It is not an exaggeration to note with pride, that more people, from more nations, have chosen to come to America to live a life of meaning and purpose than to any other nation, attracted not only by our material opportunities, but by our values and our freedoms.
Here on the birthday of this nation, we rejoice in celebrating with you who will become our newest citizens as you are imbued with the same rights and responsibilities of every American citizen, no matter where your place of birth. I know many of you faced obstacles in your journey to this day, far greater than a broken bus blocking the entrance to Monticello. You will help write the next chapter of America’s history. As your children and children’s children grow up in this land of freedom and opportunity, some of them will surely be the good neighbors, the doctors, scholars, and scientists; the elected officials, poets, and religious leaders who will bring manifold gifts and contributions to enrich your communities, your new nation—and, just perhaps, the world.
From 35 countries you have come, bringing your individual wisdom, your talents, your skills; your poetry, your music and literature to enrich America. You bring new ways of thinking of how we can address old problems. Through all this, you add such vibrant and colorful threads to the luminous tapestry that is America. E pluribus Unum—out of many, one.
Allow me to frame Jefferson’s contributions and America’s uniqueness just a bit differently from many of my predecessors at this event—speaking not so much of my own family’s immigration saga but, as a rabbi, of what America has meant to the Jewish people.
Prior to the founding of the United States of America, the rights enjoyed by individuals were, in the main, rights given by some ruler or state to an economic, political or religious group to which the individual belonged. Thus, in many lands, Jews had lesser rights than other groups, albeit in many, Jews were tolerated and lived in comparative safety. Yet, in too many other places, Jews were the quintessential victims of religious persecution—facing discrimination, harassment, attacks and pogroms. And, too often, they were the paradigmatic refugee community—victims of ethnic cleansing, forced time and again to flee, looking simply for a warm welcome, for safety and freedom.
America was different. And what a difference that made for minorities. The genius of America, the genius of Thomas Jefferson, was to flip the relationship of the individual and the state on its head asserting that the rights we enjoy come from within:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of course, today we hear that gender specific language to convey that all people are created equal.
Jefferson’s central point was that it is not the role of the state to grant these rights but rather to secure those God-given rights. As he wrote in 1786, in the ground-breaking Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom:
no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever . . . nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion.
This was a radically different view of the concept of fundamental rights, one which was later embodied in our Bill of Rights beginning with the First Amendment’s securing of those rights.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
And we celebrate these rights not just in the abstract but because without them you cannot have the free marketplace of ideas where policies can be tested and truth can rise to the surface. Without this, democracy will not flourish.
That the first two clauses of our Bill of Rights focus on religious freedom is no surprise. The founders believed these freedoms and the freedom of conscience that inhered in them, made all other freedoms possible. [The idea of fundamental rights was a concept that, in part, flowed from the biblical teaching that every human being is created in the image of the Divine, imbued with inherent dignity and value. This concept was known to the Founders both from the Bible directly and as filtered through the rationalist philosophers like John Locke—and it helped shape the American concepts of rights and democracy.] And Jefferson strongly affirmed this understanding in his famous 1802 Letter to Danbury Baptists. He wrote:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
This wall served to keep government out of religion—allowing religion to flourish and grow in America with a robustness and strength unmatched in any other democratic nation, except today for India: More people believing in God, more people going regularly to worship, more people holding religious values central to their lives. And this wall is indispensable to securing the distinctive religious comity that exists in America, requiring that all religions be treated equally, with the government favoring none and disfavoring none—protecting, as well, the right not to believe.
[Yes from time to time we see surges in religious tensions and today, indeed we have seen such a surge of hate speech and hate crimes. While they remain the exception in America, not the rule compared to most countries across the world, the damage they inflict on their victims—and on America—can be great and requires a national response. For hate crimes are more than mere acts of violence. They are more than murders, beatings, arsons and desecrations. Hate crimes are nothing less than attacks on the values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom. They are a betrayal of the promise of America. They erode our national well-being. Those who commit these crimes do so fully intending to tear at the too-often frayed threads of diversity that bind us together and make us strong. They seek to divide and conquer. They seek to tear us apart from within, pitting American against American, fomenting violence and civil discord.
What has been so extraordinary is how the religious communities of America have arisen to come together after such tragedies have occurred: Muslims cleaning up desecrated Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia; the president of a McClellan, TX synagogue handing a set of keys to the imam of a mosque that had been burnt to the ground for as long as they needed it; cleaning up graffiti and vandalism; standing in solidarity—all of this working in broad-based interfaith coalitions that are a hallmark of America—to delegitimize hate acts and hate speech. Indeed, when people come together across political, religious, cultural lines to build together a better America for all, they are modeling the very kind of America we hope to create. And, we look to all our political, religious, cultural and civic leaders to help in achieving this.]
This comity is vital since America is the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world and the last thing we need is the religious divisions and strife that has plagued so much of the world. Indeed, sociologists tell us there 2,000 religions, denomination, and sects in our country—and yes I know what you are thinking: 1,900 of them are, I am sure, in California—but this is a uniquely religiously diverse nation that remains united. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.
It was precisely the confluence of the three religion clauses of our Constitution—no religious test for office, no establishment of religion and no infringement on free exercise—that for the first time in human history created a nation in which the rights and opportunities of a citizen would not depend on religious beliefs, religious identity, religious practices. As Jefferson had written in the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute: “… our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
Or as Uriah Levy, the head of the Jewish family that bought and preserved Monticello for 90 years out of respect for Jefferson said in 1832: “He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life."
By the mid-20th Century, these promises began to be more fully realized as a series of robust Supreme Court interpretations of the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause, combined with an array of civil rights legislation passed by Congress, created effective barriers against discrimination toward protected categories of religion, race, national origin, age, gender, more recently disability, and, increasingly, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Because of these achievements, there are a couple of hundred million women and minorities of all kinds who enjoy rights and opportunities about which their great grandparents could only have dreamed. And as a result, for American Jews, this nation has given us more rights, more freedoms, more opportunities than we have ever known in the 3,000 year history of our people.
And yet with all of America’s achievements on the road towards justice, we know that we have a long way to go to fully realize the promises of our founding documents. We stand here on the grounds of Monticello, keenly aware that the author of the great vision of equality and freedom owned slaves housed near where we are gathered—reminding us, all too painfully, of the struggle with racism that has burdened this great nation for far too long. Today, in education, in employment, in our justice system and the voting booth, African Americans still face challenge others do not. The challenge of racism may be the deepest our nation faces, but it is far from the only one. Equal pay for equal work between the genders still eludes us. The disabled still face too many barriers at too many turns. The gap between the rich and the poor in America is the highest in the developed world. Protecting God’s creation remains an urgent priority for all humanity. And in a changing world, how we should most effectively maintain our American tradition of engagement with, and leadership in, the broader global community confronts us anew.
So too the current controversy over our refugee and immigration policies. The country is divided on how best to balance our security needs with maintaining a policy of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. Will we be able to continue the vision of Emma Lazarus, whose poetic words, [embodying both the lessons of her Jewish history and her pride as an American, were], inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. These words helped transform the Statue into a symbol of our welcoming embrace, over the past six generations of American history, of people just like you and your families; people like other naturalized citizens who join us here today, including my friends Khizr and Ghazala Kahn; people like my great-grandparents.
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome;
…Cries she with silent lips: "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
[These beautiful words rang true for Jewish refugee immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s, along with millions of immigrants from so many other countries. But not always so—Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution in 1938 and 1939 found the door closed to them.] And we as a nation are wrestling with whether these words by Emma Lazarus will still ring true today and tomorrow.
You will soon become citizens, and you too must play your part in helping us address these very real challenges.
[I commend to you the words uttered from this platform 25 years ago today by my late friend Carl Sagan, pre-eminent astronomer and one of America’s greatest explicators of science to the public, who observed:
I wish the oath of citizenship that you are about to take in the next few minutes included something like: “I promise to question everything my leaders tell me.” That would really be Jeffersonian. “I promise to use my critical faculties, I promise to develop my independence of thought, I promise to educate myself so I can make independent judgments.” And if these statements are not part of the oath, you can nevertheless make such promises. And such promises, it seems to me, would be a most precious gift that you can make to your country.]
In addressing these challenges, whether you do so as Democrats, Republicans, independents or supporters of smaller parties; whether you favor liberal solutions, or conservative or moderate solutions—do so ever mindful of the fundamental rights of all to be heard; listen to those who differ; be open to wisdom from others no matter what their views; look always for common ground on which we can build—in tone and in substance—towards the goal of E pluribus Unum, out of many, one.
Now, those mid-20th century extraordinary decades of robust interpretation by our courts and Congress of our fundamental liberties and civil rights also marked the era when the United States helped forge a consensus on the meaning of human rights as an international norm. Embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is America’s vision of fundamental liberties and freedom as the birthright of all human beings.
For over two years, I was blessed with the honor of serving as the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Liberty. Travelling the globe, promulgating international accords for religious freedom, I saw first-hand what the PEW Research Center tells us in its yearly statistics—most nations protect religious freedom but among those where people face threats are some of the most populous. Therefore 3/4ths of the world’s population live in countries where they face either government restrictions and repressive laws such as blasphemy laws; or they face social hostilities, often from religious extremists using violence against those whose religious beliefs and practices they find offensive.
I am confident that Thomas Jefferson with his international interests and his vision of universal human rights would be so immensely proud of what America is doing for the cause of religious freedom around the world, and its work in mobilizing other nations to stand up for oppressed minorities. [One example: Sitting across the table from the head of the Shia community in a nation that severely oppresses that community, hearing what I heard from numerous victims of persecution in many countries—what it means for them to have the U.S. Government in its annual human rights and religious freedom reports publicize their plight and lift up their cause to the world—how it inspired them to know that they were not forgotten, and that America was advocating for their freedoms.]
Across the world, America is seen as the gold standard of religious freedom. In every corner of the world where religious persecution or other human rights violations prevail, Jefferson’s words “All men are created equal,” was a cherished talisman of hope in the face of despair. I saw first-hand the power of these words to nourish, to sustain, to inspire dreams of freedom throughout the world. As Muhtar Kent observed here in 2011:
There is no containing these words. No mere border, no barrier of language can stop them. No dictator, no army, no secret police can silence them. Not now and not ever. “
This is just one key reason why we cannot remain silent today, when we see historic Christian, Yezidi, and other communities in Iraq and Syria being subjected to genocidal efforts by ISIL; when we see Bahais in Iran; Tibetan Buddhists in China; Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bahrain; Rohingya Muslims in Burma—all victims of governmental or societal discrimination, harassment, persecution or physical attacks.
To the religiously oppressed in every land who live in fear, afraid to speak of their beliefs; who worship in underground churches, mosques or temples—lest authorities discover and punish their devotion to an authority beyond the state; who languish in prisons, bodies broken, spirits too often disfigured—simply because they love God in their own way or question the existence of God; who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid killings and persecution because of their faith—for all of them, Jefferson’s legacy calls us to be a beacon of hope and light.
What I have learned so clearly in my four decades of religious and moral advocacy to government and society, is that on all these issues and more, someone will decide. Our only choice is whether we will be the audience watching others make those decisions or we will help be the authors of those decisions. No matter what your views, if you remain silent, in the vacuum of your silence will come voices that do not share your values, your dreams, and your aspirations.
Dr. Martin Luther King used to say: “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” You arrived here this morning as honored guests. In a few moments, you will go forward as citizens of the United States. Do so with confidence, for with your help, America will continue to bend the arc towards justice. For this I know with certainty: for all the problems and challenges the world faces, we are not the prisoners of a bitter and unremitting past. Rather, if we stand together, E Pluribus Unum, we can be, we must be, we will be the shapers of a better and more hopeful future for your children, for America’s children, for children all across the world. Let that be the blessing of this July 4th gathering and the blessing of your new lives in all your years to come.