Jan Love discusses the intersection of political history and religious responsibility

love-jan-recThe Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto calls on all religious people to exercise the best of their sacred traditions to bolster the best of our nation’s constitutional principles and heritage. This is a particularly meaningful commitment for me, as it marries my two of my greatest lifelong passions: political science and the church.

The daughter of a Methodist minister, I was raised in parishes throughout south Alabama and have been a denominational lay leader at state, national, and international levels since I was in high school, including representing The United Methodist Church on the World Council of Churches from 1975-2006. In school, I devoted myself to studies in political science, eventually earning a master’s and a Ph.D. with a specialty in international relations.

Before becoming dean of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in 2007, I taught courses in world politics and religious studies at the University of South Carolina for more than 20 years. During my years in the classroom, I never tired of reciting with my students some of the opening words of the United States Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

When those words were written in the 18th century, they launched one of the greatest experiments in human history. This experiment in democracy and freedom was imperfectly imagined and implemented in the midst of slavery, the conquest of native peoples, and the formal disenfranchisement of men without property and all women. Yet the attempt by a collection of courageous and creative immigrants and their descendants to forge a radically new democratic political system in the United States was quite remarkable for its time and remains so today.

As a Christian, I give thanks to God for this country and the privilege of living here. Many of the people who risked life and limb to migrate to the colonies and other parts of the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries were fleeing religious persecution. What is hard to believe today is that the religious persecution they were fleeing took place between various Christian groups, not between entirely different religions. In the 18th century, the differences among Protestants, Catholics, Episcopalians, Quakers, and other Christians were quite contentious and sometimes deadly. For reasons of principle, practicality, and peaceful coexistence, the Bill of Rights adopted in 1789 begins by guaranteeing a person’s right to hold religious beliefs and to exercise those beliefs freely. Part of the genius of the United States’ radical experiment in democracy was to reinforce emphatically that no religion would be established by the state and that each person would have religious freedom.

Some of the founding fathers were deists, but others were what we now know as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. For their time, their work together was an extraordinary effort in civic cooperation across deeply held religious differences. But as much as they understood significant and contentious differences among sacred traditions in their time, most of these men would be absolutely stunned by two developments in the 20th century: first, that Christians have worked hard to cooperate ecumenically and for the most part end their history of internal strife and at times even violence; and second, the growth of religious diversity in our country.

In the late 20th century, the United States became one of the most multireligious countries in the world, primarily due to immigration. In the 21st century, residents in both urban and rural areas interact with and often live next door to people of faith traditions other than their own. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is and other religious adherents are the doctors, lawyers, clerics, business people, computer programmers, educators, custodians, mechanics, and other professionals we encounter every day. Unlike any previous period in American history, people of many different religious commitments (or no faith commitment) go to work, schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, grocery stores and malls together, but they often don’t understand each other’s religious identity or communal practices.

Even if surprised by such developments 228 years after they adopted the Bill of Rights, I suspect the founding fathers would be appropriately proud of how remarkably insightful they were to insist on a foundational principle of religious freedom.

The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto is an urgent call for those of us from a wide variety of religious traditions to get to know each other better for the common good of our neighborhoods, city, region, and nation. As dean of a seminary that educates students to be faithful and creative leaders for Christian ministries throughout the world, I could not be more delighted to support the Manifesto. Jesus Christ commands Christians to love God and neighbor—even neighbors who are very different from us. The founding fathers intended for us to honor religious freedom. And thanks be to God, the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto embodies these two sets of values that I hold very dear.

Join me in signing the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto here.

Jan Love, dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is an internationally recognized leader in the church and theological education and a scholar of world politics, particularly issues of religion and politics, conflict transformation, and globalization. She is known for her four decades of dedicated leadership in denominational and ecumenical bodies and for facilitating constructive relationships among people and groups with deeply held differences. She is president of the Atlanta Theological Association, president of the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools, and a member of the board of the Association of Theological Schools.