The Last of Deuteronomy
It will therefore be to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole instruction, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 6:25
In my work, I spend a lot of time with a small part of the Constitution of the United States. The first two clauses of the First Amendment deal with the vexing role of religion in society. Lots of breath has been exhaled and even more ink spilled on what it means to freely exercise spiritual conscience and even more on the question of what “establishment” means, and by whom.
But it is absolutely true that even if I consider those two phrases the essence of liberty, they aren’t the only rights in that amendment, and they are far from the only concerns of the Constitution – even without the amendments that followed the original ten.
Advocates far to my right politically and theologically insist that the primacy of position is indisputable evidence of primacy of authority. Yet, as committed as I am to the place of religion and faith, I recognize that the United States is governed by the whole of the document. It is the Constitution that contextualizes its parts, not any one or more parts that contextualize the Constitution.
Though I think about this notion a lot, I have been thinking about it more in these weeks since the death of Cong. John Lewis, of truly blessed memory. The cadre of civil rights pioneers is dwindling – we have now lost three in this past year – and the retrospectives on their lives have brought comparisons to my mind. I have nothing but admiration for the likes of Reverends Joseph Lowrey and C.T. Vivian (both of whom it was my honor to meet), the other two luminaries we lost this year. Their devotion to the cause of voting rights, full equality for all citizens and the beloved community was played out almost entirely in the communities they chose/were chosen to service: the Black community. I see them as analogous to the role of Rabbi Avi Weiss in his Jewish community – insisting that he has an obligation to Jews and their interests that is no less than his obligation to others.
Mr. Lewis – whom I was privileged to know – had a more holistic approach. He was a man completely opposed to inequality and inequity. It is fair to say that his voice was most appreciated by the Black community and therefore highlighted most when his life and legacy were discussed. But John’s commitment to the dignity of every person was unbounded by race. He was a willing ally (and even a leading voice) of people of all faiths, nationalities, orientations and philosophies. His trust in the American ethos was such that he believed it had room to protect and celebrate even those with whom he disagreed – except if they sought to frustrate those protections and celebrations. It may have seemed to some that “his issue” was civil rights or, even more narrowly, voting rights. But you don’t get to be known as the Conscience of Congress as a one-issue advocate.
I will never be the man John Lewis was, though he remains an example to me of the power of personal integrity. He went deeper into that integrity as his perspective widened. His commitment to all people being created equal was not limited to his own interests, rather in principle and practice to all of the human family. He believed in all of the Constitution and the just laws that flowed from it, that is, the whole thing. He could not abide those who would insist that those parts that benefited their privilege could be defended as more important than the mission of our nation: to secure the blessings of liberty to (all of) us and our (entire) posterity.
I deeply believe that the protection of conscience (which is what “free exercise” is all about) and the protection from enforced beliefs (which is what “non-establishment” is all about) are core values. Without them, the Constitution is incomplete. But I can make the same claim about seemingly less-universal concerns like Congress’s ability to set the President’s compensation, or the prohibition of alcohol and subsequent repeal, or the minimum age of suffrage.
We are often bombarded with the outrage of people whose religious autonomy I seek to defend. Some insist that reproductive health care policy should be governed by their faith perspective. Some insist that other religious traditions than their own present a threat to their notion of America. Some insist that they have a protected right to celebrate their faith in public circumstances at public expense. I believe they seek to privilege themselves at the cost of the whole Constitution. The irony, perhaps, is that Constitution cannot be upheld only by the actions of one person or one subset of people. The whole thing demands the whole thing.
I also believe that the verse that prompts my thinking means the same thing within a faith tradition – in this case, my own. Some insist that a ritual observance is the necessary and sufficient part of the Torah. Some insist a particular mandate to pursue justice or love your neighbor is all you need. Some insist there are only ten mandates that mean anything, or a singular expectation to love the Creator. Nonsense. It is to our merit collectively, and with our best integrity individually, to faithfully uphold the whole thing.