Keynote Address Text - 5th Annual Wisconsin State Celebration in the Capitol
[John-Brian, People have been gracious about my statement. I don't routinely
publish talks like these on our website or in our community newspaper.
While the attached (below) is what was written in advance, I did deviate
during its presentation at the Capitol. Shalom. - Steve Thu 12/14/2006
Fifth Annual Wisconsin Interfaith Awareness Celebration
December 12, 2006
Steven H. Morrison
Madison Jewish Community Council
It's a distinct privilege and I am honored to have been asked to talk with
you about "moving forward in our community of diverse people" as we
celebrate interfaith awareness.
While many here today may not remember a time when interfaith awareness and
activity did not exist, it's important to remember that the movement is of
relatively recent vintage.
America in the 1920's proved the time and place for the beginning of the
interfaith movement. This may seem incongruous to those students of American
history who remember the intense isolationism and nativism that
characterized America in the 1920's. The decade after World War I saw the
passage the 1924 immigration act that severely limited access to the United
States, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the publication and
dissemination by Henry Ford of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a
forgery that alleged world Jewish conspiracy.
And yet the 1920's were also the "age of goodwill." A sizeable number of
American religious leaders judged the intolerance advocated by the KKK and
others as un-American and un-Christian. In addition, WWI stimulated a sense
of religious fraternity, as soldiers (and chaplains) of different faiths
worked and fought side by side. Finally, many religious leaders realized
that domestic harmony improved chances of more peaceful international
While the interfaith movement of the 1920's and 1930's successfully promoted
interfaith education through lectures and workshops in America, the movement
failed to effect change when it mattered most - in the political arena
during the reign of the Nazis.
The Holocaust changed the course of interfaith dialogue, shifting the focus
from combating intolerance to understanding intolerance. How did anti-Jewish
aspects of Christian theology encourage demonization of Jews? Where did
these attitudes come from? Could they be changed, and if so, how? These are
some of the philosophical questions that became part of interfaith dialogue
in the postwar period, and they continue to be debated today.
Interfaith activities expanded in pluralistic postwar America. The civil
rights movement provided opportunities to actualize interfaith goals of
social justice. The interfaith movement broadened its agenda to include race
in the 1950's. By the 1960's, the group had implemented a national campaign
to counter anti-Semitism and racism as well.
As we gather today in the closing days of 2006 to reflect on interfaith
awareness, we have an opportunity to remember with profound fondness and
respect an individual who took interfaith awareness to heights unimagined in
nearly 2,000 years.
I, of course, am referring to Sister Rose Thering who died last May at age
85. Sister Rose was a woman, nun, educator and compassionate and committed
human being who helped bring about change against great odds and, in so
doing - in my judgment - made the greatest interfaith contribution ever.
Sister Rose understood early in life that anti-Semitism was wrong and
devoted herself to working against it. As a young girl here in Wisconsin she
was taught in Catholic school that Jews were Christ killers. Years later, as
a Catholic school teacher, she was shocked that the religious textbooks and
teachings remained unchanged. Her inquisitiveness and sensitivity led her to
work toward bringing about change. She did a study on anti-Semitism in
Catholic texts that resulted in her 1961 doctoral dissertation, which
exposed the anti-Jewish slanders in textbooks and preaching.
It's said that timing is everything in life, and how true that was for
Sister Rose. She lived during a time of overt anti-Semitism in this country,
as well as during a time of activism and change. It was certainly fortunate,
if not divinely inspired, that her resolve to change the Church's teaching
about Jews coincided with the Church's reform movement. Her deep belief in
and respect for her faith provided the foundation for her to seize the
moment. Ultimately, her work led to fundamental change of the teachings of
the Catholic Church and its relationship with their "elder brothers and
This, too, was the year when leaders and followers of many faiths banded
together in what ultimately was a failed attempt to defeat legislating
discrimination in our State's Constitution. Though we failed, we also
forged stronger ties between religions and faith groups. So, too, this was
the year when interfaith activity coalesced around stopping the genocide in
We close 2006 by coming together as a community of diverse people when the
very existence of interfaith relations may be in jeopardy.
Permit me to explain my deep - very deep - worry.
America's more than two-century-old embrace of religious liberty has
produced the most religiously pluralistic nation in history of the world.
The success of that bold experiment in liberty cannot be denied, but its
future is, I believe, at risk . . . mostly because religious pluralism can
only exist when there is an unwavering commitment to maintaining
religion-state separation as the best means of assuring robust religious
liberty and to creating a climate of mutual respect in a religiously diverse
Yet, that is not the climate we are experiencing today. We are, today,
confronted by a strikingly invalid view about the role of religion in public
life. It portrays America as a Christian nation. As an aside, I never and
will never use the term "Judeo-Christian" for the simple reason that there
is no such thing. Besides, those who portray America as a Christian nation
know what they mean . . . and they don't mean many, if not most, of us
This view wrongly suggests that the Founders never meant to separate the
institutions of religion and state or to prohibit the establishment of
religion. Such a view is historically inaccurate and endangers our common
welfare because it uses religion to divide rather than unite the American
people. This view of religion in public life, inaccurate and dangerous as it
is, has gained credence in reaction to another inaccurate and equally
damaging view of the proper role of religion in public life.
It's doubtful, I think, that any of us would have come to our State's
capitol were we not committed to religious liberty as well as a dynamic role
for religion in public life. My sense is that we likely share a different
vision about the future - a vision that avoids both the theocratic
tendencies on one side and the hostility toward religion associated with the
other. Now more than ever, the United States must maintain its commitment to
freedom for persons of all faiths and of no faith.
Today, then, is a very good day, indeed, to reaffirm our dedication to
providing what Roger Williams called a "haven for the cause of conscience."
We ought to agree with Williams that conscience is best guarded by
maintaining a healthy distance between the institutions of religion and
But, the reality is that reaffirmation of these truths is not sufficient. We
need to apply these principles in practical ways whether we are electing a
school board member or an American president, whether we are debating
providing government support for so-called "faith based" programs or, yet
once again, prayer in public schools.
The first sixteen words of the First Amendment form the backbone of the
American experiment. Together they guarantee religious liberty for Americans
of every faith as well as for those who affirm no faith at all. A profound
belief in the freedom of conscience motivated the decision of the Founders
to disestablish religion in the new nation and to specifically protect the
free exercise of religion. Both clauses require the separation of religion
and state as the means of ensuring religious liberty.
This "lively experiment" has allowed religions to flourish with unparalleled
strength and diversity. The religious and ethnic diversity of the United
States makes the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an
establishment of religion more important than ever. No one wants government
taking sides against their religion in favor of someone else's. In matters
of faith, government must not take sides at all.
The "America is a Christian Nation" crowd argues that the phrase "separation
of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution and that society
cannot survive without government support of religion. As to the former,
they are correct. "Separation of church and state," like "separation of
powers," "fair trial" or even "religious freedom," does not appear in the
Yet, Article VI's prohibition against religious tests for public office and
the Establishment Clause's prohibition against laws even "respecting" an
establishment of religion makes clear that government is to be neutral in
matters of faith. As to the latter, government support has proven a
hindrance, not a help, to religion. History is replete with wrecked
governments and weakened churches brought down by the unhealthy union of
church and state.
For America, I think, it comes down to this.
Neither religion nor state may control, dominate or subjugate the other. Our
heritage of religious liberty and religion-state separation must be
reaffirmed and, as the Founders demanded, must remain as they intended them
to be - the first words of the foundational First Amendment.
Daniel Carroll of Maryland said it well more than 200 years ago when he
declared that "the rights of conscience are . . . of particular delicacy and
will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand." Carroll's lofty
view of conscience captures our understanding of our past and guides our
vision of the future.
So today, as we "move forward in our community of diverse people," I ask
that we each of us do so by committing ourselves to making this ideal a
reality in the days and years ahead.
= = =
You can hear it online.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS delivered by Steve Morrison, Executive Director of Madison
Jewish Community Council
12 minutes, 38 seconds
For podcasting (rss feed - download) listed as "#9 of 10 tracks" of the 5th