Interfaith Alliance has been a touchstone in my life for more than twenty-five years.
I remember when I was “recruited” to join the board as part of the cohort of clergy of the rising generation of leaders. The opportunity to sit at the table with people I admired from afar – Herb Valentine, Joan Brown Campbell, Denny Davidoff, Albert Pennybacker, Arthur Hertzberg – was too delicious to pass up. The cause was incidental. At first.
In those first years, our finances were tenuous. An opportunity presented itself for a windfall – a very popular recording artist was willing to do a benefit concert at no cost to us. It had the potential to pull us out of a deep hole. The only night the artist was available was a Friday. Without hesitation or prompting, the chair, Herb Valentine, said, “We can’t exclude our Jewish brothers and sisters by holding this concert on Shabbat.” There was no disagreement. I learned in one sentence the importance of standing with partners and allies, even to the point of personal and institutional disadvantage.
Underpinning the personal integrity of this extraordinary group was, I learned quickly, a profound commitment to the First Amendment’s insistence on freedom of conscience. The principles that Interfaith Alliance upholds as an organization are a reflection of the constitutional guarantees that inspired it. The early iteration of what is now the Religious Right – the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others – pioneered the notion that our first freedom existed to protect the privilege of certain adherents of their own tradition. The benefits to others were crumbs from the whole loaf of privilege they claimed. But Interfaith Alliance insisted on the proposition that all conscience is created equal, including that which is not Christian and even that which is not religious in nature.
I will admit that I was initially challenged by the notion of defending people whose beliefs and practices were profoundly different from my Judaism. But Rev. Valentine’s example inspired me. And when we had the good fortune to engage Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy as our president, I was able to learn from the master as I continued as a board member, officer and chair of the board. Welton’s willingness as a Baptist preacher to embrace the equality of all people, regardless of faith, identity, or politics remains my model.
When it came time for Welton to retire, the board (on which I no longer served) had an understandably difficult time finding a successor. He called me and asked if I would fill in for him for a few months as the search process played out. That temporary assignment turned into more than seven years of protecting faith and freedom, as our mission insists.
Slowly but steadily over these many years, the people of Interfaith Alliance have come to understand that religious freedom is about more than keeping prayer out of public schools and supporting the right of an individual to wear a yarmulke, hijab, or turban. So much of the institutionalized bias in our country has its roots in religiously-motivated prejudice. That includes the mostly-Protestant custom of public prayer, presumed to be a norm because of long-standing practice. But it also includes diverting public school funds to religious education, delegitimizing homosexuality, and denying reproductive health care and medical procedures. Freedom of religion is a guaranteed starting point for every citizen. It is not, as some would have, toleration for dissent from a public standard that is really someone else’s private belief.
The landscape has turned pretty ugly during my tenure. I admit to being lulled into a sense of optimism when the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality, but not long afterward the surge in blatant bigotry that coincided with the change in administration persuaded me that the most important work of Interfaith Alliance is still ahead.
There is no more fundamental human right than freedom of conscience. The only limitation on belief should come from the protection of similar freedom for others. The adage attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins,” is, of course, a metaphor for all human rights, but none more so than the inviolability of personal conviction, until and unless it interferes with the same right of others. If I do not protect that right for you, then my right is at risk.
I have been blessed with a passionate staff and committed board grappling with the dilemma of all people who understand that no aspect of our freedom is independent of any other. The common (and to some, controversial) term for this is “intersectionality.” But to claim that religious bias is at the root of all of our ills is to stand for everything and nothing simultaneously. (I will admit to saying that nothing prevents religious freedom more effectively than a bullet).
Instead, I have learned that our partnerships and coalitions enable us to do what we do uniquely and best: serve as watchdogs and advocates in the struggle to preserve the integrity of the first freedoms in the Bill of Rights – the separation of religion and government and the preservation of the essential right to conscience.
That is why I will continue to support the unique mission of Interfaith Alliance and its equally unique locus in the cohort of civil liberty organizations. We continue to support the Constitution as a consequence of faith, and faith as a consequence of the Constitution. I hope you will continue to join me.
Rabbi Jack Moline
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession