U.S. SENATOR JOHN F. KENNEDY
FOR PRESIDENT HEADQUARTERS,
Washington, D.C., October 10, 1960.
Mr. LEWIS WEBSTER JONES,
President, the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Mr. MORRIS MORGENSTERN,
Morris Morgenstern Foundation.
GENTLEMEN: It is a disappointment not to be
able to participate personally in your celebration of the 170th anniversary
of George Washington's letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, R.I.
Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has graciously consented to express my sentiments
In addition to your historic letter, the letter written by the members of the synagogue to our first President is also eloquent. They wrote, "Deprived, as we have hitherto been, of invaluable rights of free citizens, we now - with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events - behold a government erected by the majesty of the people, a government which gives no sanction to bigotry and no assistance to persecution, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming everyone, of whatever nation, tongue or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine." The harvest of freedom in America sprang from the search for religious liberty. To these shores came men and women of all races and all faiths who had tasted the bitter fruits of bigotry and hungered for the bread of freedom. The Puritan and the Cavalier, the Catholic and the Jew, the Quaker, all belonged to religious minorities who had often walked in the shadow of fear. But, "the law," as the Supreme Court reminds us today, following the long tradition, "knows no heresy and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect."
The Founding Fathers believed that liberty of conscience and freedom of worship should rest upon something stronger than inference or tradition. The necessary guarantee was therefore written into the first amendment. They believed religious freedom would be strengthened if all faiths and creeds were guaranteed this protection, if no single church were permitted special privileges, and if every person felt secure in his right to personal religious faith. This has proved to be the case. There are now more than 200,000 churches in the United States, representing some 255 religious groups.
In 1790 men were concerned about protecting freedom of worship from the interference by the state. In time we have learned that more is required - that the full enjoyment of personal liberty, even of freedom of religion, depends upon the preservation of conditions in which men have the opportunity to enjoy freedom. It was not by chance that Franklin Roosevelt's four freedoms were composed of two which emphasized restraint upon the Government - freedom of speech and freedom of religion - and two - freedom from want and freedom from fear - which concerned the conditions in which freedom could be enjoyed. Today it is the duty of Government to concern itself with protecting the opportunity to enjoy these basic liberties.
There is another difference between 1790 and 1960. In a world where society is becoming even more close knit - where we rub elbows with our fellows - it is not enough that we have "a government which gives no sanction to bigotry and no assistance to persecution." It is incumbent upon all of us to encourage a spirit of tolerance, not only from Government but from one group within the community toward another. Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather, it condemns the oppression or persecution of others. In achieving this spirit of tolerance throughout the community, the moral leadership of every person and every Government official, including the Chief Executive, must play an important part. It is neither enough to depend upon others to show the way, nor sufficient to allow leadership to rest upon a dedicated few. The moral commitment must be a part of our basic beliefs and our instinctive actions.
With every good wish, I am
I am fortunate that despite your vigorous campaign
schedule you will be in New York tomorrow and have consented to speak for
me at the celebration of the 170th anniversary of George Washington's letter
to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, R.I. No one could have a more
eloquent spokesman to discuss religious tolerance. If you desire to convey
a specific message from me, I would like to say the following to the group
"The search for religious freedom created America. The protection of religious freedom has made America great. The degree that we preserve religious freedom in America may well determine not only our future, but that of all mankind.
"The Puritan, the Cavalier, the Catholic, the Jew, and the Quaker brought religious liberty to our shores. Our Founding Fathers wrote it into the first amendment to the Constitution. The 200,000 churches and 255 religious groups in the United States are in eloquent testimonial of our devotion to this, the most fundamental ideal of our concept of government.
"We have a Government which, in the words of the members of Touro, 'gives no sanction to bigotry and no assistance to persecution.' We must provide our society with the moral leadership to preserve this principle. Our President, and our leaders in every walk of life, must dedicate themselves to this concept so that we, as freemen, may insure that the spirit of liberty will flourish instinctively in every man, woman, and child throughout the land."
With warm regards,
Participating with you in the marking of this
170th anniversary of George Washington's celebrated declaration against
bigotry gives me great satisfaction. We can be proud not only that the
leader of our new country wrote the letter in 1790. We can also be proud
because after 170 years this letter still inspires us.
There is significance to the fact that this oldest synagogue building in the United States stands in Rhode Island, for Rhode Island was that part of the New World which was the first to welcome all men of all faiths equally. It was a haven against bigotry in a world riddled and fragmented and besmirched by intolerance and religious persecution.
The example set by Rhode Island and by our first citizen may have had its effect on the other framers of our Constitution. They too accepted the principle of man's inherent right to worship God as he sees fit. And since our Bill of Rights was adopted, complete religious liberty has been championed here as an unquestioned personal freedom.
Of course, there is more to religious liberty than the mere right to attend the church of one's choice. Washington's celebrated phrases "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," stand strong as a barrier to deviations this country cannot permit. But there is more to his letter.
George Washington expressed the underlying concept of true religious freedom when he wrote, in his letter to the Touro Synagogue:
"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."
Here the concept of tolerance as condescension or indulgence is clearly ruled out. Instead, tolerance becomes the natural relationship based upon human fellowship. And this is as it should be.
While we have not fully realized these ideals in practice we must move forward. In confronting intolerance we must struggle not only to hold our gains and avoid retreat, but to extend the area of enlightenment, and the degree of fellowship
I look and hope for an America in which these ideals and practices will prevail and from which the ruinous diseases of racial and religious prejudice will be eradicated.