What the Founding Fathers Teach Us About Religious Freedom
Religious liberty is completely unique. That's why we have to fight for it.
Despite needing to gear up for Pesach, I spent last week in New York with five of my Northwest Yeshiva High School journalism students at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) conference and the Jewish Scholastic Press Association (JSPA) Shabbaton. Leaving my family for five days to schlep teenagers across the country and around New York City was not easy to get my head around. But it was absolutely worth it. The conferences were inspiring — and I was astounded to learn that our upstart newspaper won two first place awards and the grand prize at JSPA. (Read the winners here and here!)
So, there was no Cholent here last week due to my travel plans. I was still at a loss for content this week, when on Wednesday morning my husband announced that we’d be having a dinner guest that evening, on my busiest day of the week. Great.
That guest was Isaac Amon, a lawyer from St. Louis and a participant in the national cohort of JIMENA’s Sephardic Leaders Fellowship, which my husband runs. Amon was passing through Seattle on his way to Portland for the Conference on Law and Antisemitism at Lewis and Clark Law School. We got to talking about his presentation and area of interest — and I quickly realized I had found this week’s story.
As a member of the Sephardic community and as someone who has roots going back to the American Revolution, I found Amon’s idea of turning to the Founding Fathers for guidance on fighting anti-Semitism intriguing. I hope you do, too. Share your thoughts in the comments, on the Substack chat, or just to me — I love hearing from you!
“They thought that they were doing something really unique in the history of humanity.”
Isaac Amon on the Founding Fathers’ intentional choice to enshrine liberty of conscience into their burgeoning republic.
The Cholent: First, tell me about yourself.
Isaac Amon: I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, and I still live there. I’m Sephardic on my father's side, from Istanbul, and from my grandmother's side, from Aleppo and Beirut. And I’m Ashkenazi on my mom's side. I have a synthesis of different Jewish traditions and cultural backgrounds. Growing up it was exceptionally enriching to hear different languages and different customs. I'm very grateful for having been born and raised in that.
I'm a licensed attorney in the state of Missouri. I have a focus in legal history and criminal law and procedure, and I have a BA in history with a focus on the Spanish Inquisition and medieval history. I have a JD in law an LLM, a master’s with a specialization in negotiation and dispute resolution. And then lastly, I have a doctorate in comparative criminal procedure where I examine criminal law and procedure from different historical legal traditions.
My degrees are all from Washington University in St. Louis. I liked it so much, I guess they didn't want to let me go. I also had a legal fellowship in the Hague. I worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. I've also served as a research assistant on crimes against humanity to the special adviser at the International Criminal Court. I also happen to serve as the director of academic research at Jewish Heritage Alliance, which is a historical and cultural nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the Sephardic legacy. So, I like to think that my background theoretically, practically, academically, and religiously in a sense has kind of combined to give me great insight into some of these issues that we're dealing with today.
What are those issues we are dealing with today?
Well, in this context, especially for the conference coming up, it's anti-Semitism and the various manifestations, the guises, it can assume and has assumed over the course of history and how that's played into the history of Jewish people as well as society at large. I think anti-Semitism goes into how a society values minorities, religious freedom, and diversity. Certainly, there's discrimination that still ensues. But I do think that the United States has been an anomaly in human history. We've been privileged to have lived in the United States these last two and a half centuries, and especially I think in the 20th century. It's been something almost unparalleled probably in the last 2,000 years.
Yeah, I would say so, too. Let's talk about the subject of your talk, which is how we can look to the founders of America for a path toward religious freedom for society.
Yeah. So, my topic is “Religious Freedom, the Inquisition, and the Founders.” Basically, the idea is that for whatever defects, whatever weaknesses the Founding Fathers of the United States had — and of course they were not perfect, and many of them were slave owners. It's something that we do have to accept and we have to grapple with, as we're always working toward forming a more perfect union as the Constitution's preamble states. But specifically in this regard, religious freedom and the broader idea of liberty of conscience, that people are free to think and worship and act, by and large, however they'd like, is something that the founders of the American republic were incredibly enlightened and progressive on.
It's something that goes back even to some of the colonies, notably Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. This is not to say that dissenting Christians and Jews really had perfect equality. They obviously didn't. There were places where Jews couldn't vote, they couldn't hold elected office, they couldn't own land or property. But nonetheless, their ability to worship was protected and enshrined in law. They would not be persecuted merely for the act of worshiping in a synagogue. I think this is a momentous step in human history.
And what's behind that? What’s the role of the Inquisition?
So the Founders were product of the Enlightenment era, which is this movement in 17th- and 18th-century Europe that basically says, if human beings can look to reason, it's because they've been endowed by their creator with the ability to reason and to think and to find solutions to the vexing problems facing human society. We can create a more just society. It's a society that won't be ruled on emotion, and it won't be ruled on unreasonable ideas. The Enlightenment came to embody this idea of religious freedom. The inquisitions were established in Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s and early 1500s, and they lasted all the way into the 1800s. To many people who are supporters of the Enlightenment, the Inquisition is seen as the epitome of religious intolerance and bigotry, perhaps even a type of superstition. This is something that we have to discard. We have to abolish this tribunal. This notion exists of course among philosophers and proponents of Enlightenment in Europe. But in the United States, when they are creating a republic, the Founders are very much influenced by these debates and these ideas. And Sephardic Jews had arrived to the future United States as crypto Jews actually entering the American southwest when it was still under the control of the Spanish. Also, the Portuguese had arrived all along the eastern seaboard of the United States. That's when they founded the famous synagogues and congregations that endure to this day, including Shearith Israel in New York and Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, and other places.
There's correspondence between the Founders or the Framers of the Constitution and some of these prominent Sephardic Jews, many of whose parents or grandparents had been imprisoned by the Inquisition or had been persecuted and had actually fled Portugal to London and then on to the New World seeking religious freedom. And so there's a direct connection, it seems, in the course of what I found in my own research, between Founders and Jews who had directly experienced religious persecution at the hands of the Inquisition. There are references to the Inquisition, to religious persecution in their writings. And in fact, even when they are debating the Constitution in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, there's an Ashkenazi Jew, Jonas Phillips, who had served in the American Revolution, who's also President of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. He was the husband of Rebecca Mendez Machado, whose parents were Portuguese crypto Jews who had fled the Inquisition. He wrote a letter to George Washington and the other delegates beseeching them to enshrine religious freedom for Jews, and by implication other religious minorities. And that's a great moment, because it's the only private petition the delegates ever received. And it really foreshadowed and symbolized this idea that Jews could contribute to the new nation, and they could bring their experience of fleeing religious persecution to help ensure it would not happen in the United States.
Do you think that’s directly related to the letter from George Washington to Touro Synagogue?
Sure. So Washington actually wrote letters not only to Jews. He wrote to a number of Christian denominations as well, to all these religious minorities. I think it's about 18 different groups or associations in which he pledges, famously as said in the letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that the government of the United States, in religious matters, gives “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and that everyone will have liberty of conscience in this new nation. I would say the aspect of that letter that really stands as a majestic moment in American history is that he says it's now no longer religious toleration. We're speaking of it is liberty of conscience, which is an inherent, natural right. Meaning, every human being has the right to worship as they please.
I think that that goes over people's heads. We still talk about tolerance. We don't talk about “liberty of conscience.”
No, and in fact, even before the letter to the Touro Synagogue, Jefferson himself had drafted a Virginia statute for religious freedom. In Virginia in the 1780s, there was a debate over whether or not the Commonwealth could actually create a tax that would be applied to all citizens to fund Christian religious instruction. And it was James Madison, who was the future president and the father of the Constitution, who really led the opposition in the Virginia Assembly. Thomas Jefferson wasn't there; he was actually serving as US ambassador to France at the time. But Madison, working with Jefferson, actually defeated this bill and got the assembly to adopt the Virginia statute for religious freedom. Again, this moment is unique, because it's probably the first time in Western history that it's not religious toleration, it's full religious freedom.
In fact, the document actually starts off by saying, almighty God has created the mind free, so no human power can circumscribe that God-given right. They go on to say, again, it's not religious toleration, it's full freedom, and everyone can profess whatever religion or no religion, and no one can be compelled to frequent a religious place or worship against their own will. They even say at the end, which I find fascinating, that although they know that future generations could undo this act, they would bring everlasting shame upon themselves if they reversed this. It would be an infringement of everyone's natural rights. It would go against the laws of nature.
Wow. That's fascinating. Obviously, this is a counterpoint to like any kind of Christian nationalist movement. That's one area where we see anti-Semitism coming from on the right. We also see it coming from new pockets on the left, where there also seems to be an anti-American sentiment, an anti-Enlightenment sentiment.
Well, I think you're right. Anti-Semitism is manifesting itself on both extremes. If you go far enough, they will actually create a circle and they'll meet. They have common ground in this regard. A lot of it starts with education and awareness. People might be familiar, for example, with Washington's letter to the Touro Synagogue, but they don't understand the foundational declaration that it's not religious toleration. It specifically says that it's not toleration. It is religious freedom. Not every single [delegate] wanted full religious freedom. By and large, I think they really concurred on the idea of liberty of conscience. They thought it was a natural right. They thought that they were doing something really unique in the history of humanity. They did not want to see a repeat of religious intolerance and bigotry and the devastating conflicts and wars that had consumed the European continent for centuries, leaving millions dead.
So what can we learn from this now, especially in spaces like in the Northwest, where binary, racial thinking has led to Jews getting grouped in with “oppressors” because of their so-called white privilege?
Jews have perhaps reached a point where many of them could be seen in that vein. But that's also, I think, a historical anomaly. It only is probably in the late 20th century that Jews are perhaps even accepted. At the state level, certainly, and even in popular circles, obviously Jews were not accepted. Even into the 20th century, there are quotas on Jews being accepted into universities and into country clubs. It doesn't even matter if a person's observant or not observant. The fact is, they're a Jew, and they're not seen as white. Now, obviously, that type of thinking is the culmination of Nazism and Nazi ideology. The Jews are specifically not white. They're not Aryan, and they're obviously inferior. They're actually lower than animals and they're all deserving of extermination. So certainly the Nazis do not see them as white. Even if their skin color would enable them to pass, they are known to be Jewish. So it doesn't escape.
That plays a role, by the way, in the upsurge in anti-Semitism. The greatest group affected, as far as I understand, are visibly identifiable Jews, because people know they're Jewish. So it doesn't matter their skin color at that point. And so are Jews going to be forced to have to hide their identity, to conceal it, to be like crypto Jews all over again in order to be able to pass in society, to get the benefit of a white supremacist society, according to that type of thinking? That also negates the Jewish ability to live freely and to dress as how everyone wants to dress. That's obviously very problematic.
History and legacy are very nuanced. It's not usually black and white. There are shades of gray, especially if we judge the past by the standards of our time. I think it behooves us all to keep in mind that people are not perfect and they can be incredibly progressive or enlightened or reasonable, or just in one area and not, for whatever reason, in all others. When we look at the Founding Fathers, if we judge their record, yes, there's a lot to reconcile and to grapple with. But I do think that in this area of religious freedom, it is something very exceptional and very unique. We've all been privileged to have lived in the United States at this time and place in the annals of human history. There are so many previous generations who would've given anything to have been here. And I think we owe it to them. We owe it to them to keep this alive and to really not take for granted the religious liberty that we have today.
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Nice article. Freedom of religion is the the first right established within the first amendment of the constitution. It was that important to the founders.
Thank you for this enlightening and different perspective. Brings back a memory from 30 years ago. Wandering around the US with my 12 year old twin sons on a road trip. Came across the Rhode Island Tauro synagogue. Was at an angle to the street to face east, and went in the front door. Inside under the bima was a trap door to escape, and along the wall, a guest chair. I sat on that chair. It was the one that George Washington sat upon his visit to Rhode Island and delivered his religious freedom assurance. Thank you again.