An Interfaith Vision for America

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann
President, Hebrew College
Jan. 22, 2012 

The remarkable confluence of President Obama’s second inaugural celebration and the national holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday led me to think about the place of religious pluralism in America. I listened to President Obama’s inaugural address at noon, and as I was driving back to Boston from New York City, I listened again to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech that was broadcast on the local radio. I was struck, as I have been in the past, with the concluding sentence of King’s famous speech.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at Last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

martin luther king jr. and president barack obamaKing had a vision for America in which racial equality and interreligious engagement were part and parcel of America’s commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” Today, the choice of "Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” might seem out of touch with our current experience of religious diversity in this country, and I have often wondered about King’s use of the categories of Jews and gentiles to describe the religious landscape of America. And yet, the significance of interfaith relations is clear and compelling for King. The absence of any mention of religious pluralism in President Obama’s address stood in stark contrast to the culminating vision articulated by King in his address given almost 50 years ago.

Perhaps, as some recent polls suggest, we are living in a less religious age despite the incredible diversity of religious communities that comprise the map of American religion. It is also true that King was a preacher and a religious leader, not the political leader of our country. But I was disappointed that Obama’s vision for America as expressed in this important inaugural address did not include any reference to religious pluralism as a core component.

The tradition of holding a national prayer service the day after the presidential inauguration provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of religious diversity and pluralism. Since the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt revitalized the tradition, it has been hosted by the National Cathedral. I would like to propose that the national prayer service rotate among different houses of worship, reflecting the great and wondrous diversity of religious traditions in America. The national prayer service could be a powerful symbol of religious freedom and cooperation that is a defining characteristic of our country. Should those of us from other religious communities always feel like guests in an Episcopal house of prayer? Imagine a national prayer service on the day after the inauguration that enables different Christian and non-Christian communities to feel that they, too, can serve as religious hosts in America.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., let us embody the value of religious pluralism that has been so central to our national narrative. The national prayer service —and where we hold it — is a great place to start.