by Sofi Hersher Andorsky
This article was originally published by Baptist News Global here.
A few years ago, I met a woman who, upon seeing my Jewish star necklace, hastened to identify herself to me as a “soldier of Christ” in a tone that jolted my whole body.
Perhaps you know this tone or have heard it before. It is not overtly aggressive, but it is not entirely benign. There is mostly pride, but there is also a trace of menace. The interaction, although brief, left me gasping for air in a panic on the street corner. The violence of the metaphor literally took my breath away. She had me, in 2016, recounting the Crusades in my head.
I don’t bring this up to chastise. I bring it up to illustrate how religious freedom is just as much a culture we must cultivate as it is an area of law and policy.
Our founding narrative does little to inculcate this truth in Americans. We talk about religious freedom like it is a natural plot point in the moral arc of history — indeed, we are here because Christian nonconformists were willing to die to build the “city upon a hill” —and thus every person born or living on this land must know how to do it. In my opinion, that’s simply not true.
First, it belies our real story. We rarely talk about state-sponsored hangings of Quakers by Puritans in Massachusetts, mandatory Anglican church membership in Virginia to vote, or the countless religious justifications for massacring Native Americans and enslaved Africans. The reality is that while our founders left in search of religious liberty, they were not particularly good at creating it, nor humble in offering it.
We have a tendency as Americans to reduce religious freedom to a set of laws or even a single amendment. While laws regulating our government’s treatment of religion are imperative (and hard enough to balance with other rights), they are not the whole story. They create a framework for coexistence, but not for fellowship.
To achieve the latter, we must also treat religious freedom as a practice. Indeed, in an ideal state, it is a lived experience for those with and without the power of hegemony.
Practicing religious freedom requires radical humility. It requires us to accept that the beliefs and symbols that provide us the most comfort — light even in the darkest of days — are capable of inspiring trepidation, even fear, in others.
As a Jewish person, there have been times the sight of a Cross made me question my physical and emotional safety. I know this symbol brings hope to millions, spreading a message of love and sacrifice and kindness to many. Yet for me, it immediately marks me as an outsider, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, all at the whim of those around me.
I thought about this recently when I saw a Palestinian American physically recoil at the sight of a Magen David (Jewish star), a symbol that often brings me a sense of profound safety and relief. For this person, it was a reminder of state-sponsored oppression from the Israeli government and what feels to them like complicity from American Jews.
It is not helpful for me to pretend I don’t find this juxtaposition painful, or to punish myself for not knowing exactly what to do about it.
Practicing religious freedom also requires us to acknowledge that when presented with all the same information and opportunity, our neighbors may not replicate our choices. Personally, I’ve been presented the case for becoming a Christian over and over my entire life. When I joined my college sorority, two girls cornered me to lament my inevitable entry into hell. A few years back, a male Uber driver in Texas pulled over on a quiet road to open the trunk and show me his Bible in case I was interested. The government was not infringing on my rights, and yet I did not feel particularly “free” in these moments.
And, finally, practicing religious freedom requires us to live alongside people, behaviors and preferences we do not understand or that make us uneasy.
There are, of course, some things we all can agree should be summarily condemned. As a child, two Christian white supremacists firebombed my synagogue. I stood and watched as a section of it burned to the ground. But those are the rare examples. More often, we are confronted with relatively minor confusions and discomforts, the need to make inconvenient accommodations and the challenge of doing so with patience. We have to pause and think about our words. In short, it requires us to do things that are really, really hard.
But here’s the good part: When we stop pretending this should come naturally, it can actually get easier. When we expect things to be hard, we know we have to work on or toward them. Hard things take practice. Take effort. Take grace.
Why should we not have language for this? Why should it be taboo to acknowledge? Because the Pilgrims came fleeing persecution? Because the founding generation passed the Bill of Rights? If our history teaches us anything, it’s that hurt people can hurt people, not that we come out of the womb knowing how to live in harmony.
As an officer of the board of directors of BJC and a BJC Fellow, I believe passionately we must fight for good new laws and inclusive interpretations of the ones we have. I also believe this work is necessary, but not sufficient. We also must reckon with and acknowledge the internal work of religious freedom and just how hard it is to pursue and practice toward each other. Perhaps then we will feel it is OK to practice, like we would anything else we find challenging at first.
To return to the woman I opened with, I do not believe she meant to scare me — indeed I believe she meant to be open, or at least authentic, in her way — but I do not believe she stopped to consider the impact of her chosen words or how to share space. Perhaps some practice would help.
Sofi Hersher Andorsky is a member of the board of directors of BJC and vice president of strategy and communications at A More Perfect Union: The Jewish Partnership for Democracy.