Remarks from Father John P. Fitzgibbons of Regis University on April 13, 2021
Today, we come together -- even while we remain physically separated by this pandemic -- to celebrate religious freedom and fellowship in our great state of Colorado … and wider, in our great country, the United States of America.
Lately, and especially in our political arenas, we haven’t felt so united. Our great halls of justice -- in our state capitols and in our nation’s Capitol -- have been besieged by bitterness and rancor. Bipartisanship seems a noble calling but deeply in the past. There is a great political divide in our nation. I don’t have to tell you this. You see it. You read about it. You feel it. Maybe you even participate in it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As religious leaders and religious people, I am proud to stand with you - maybe not literally today, since we’re on Zoom and Facebook Live - but stand together we do as conduits of love, togetherness and peace. Faith is a sacred value in our world.
Today, on Colorado Religious Freedom Day, we can show our brothers and sisters how to come together in community, how to love thy neighbor who might not think as we do and who may hold views and beliefs that are different from ours.
We are all related. We descend from one tribe. My Jesuit Catholic beliefs challenge me every day to ask, “How ought I to live?” And let me tell you - it’s not in finding fault and acrimony with my neighbor.
I - we - are to be United in our Diversity.
This idea -- and the challenge to maintain Unity in Diversity -- is older than the Republic itself. Much of the nation was founded on the principle of Unity in Diversity, and so it remains our charge today. As religious, peace-loving, diversity-embracing people, we are charged to seek Unity in our Diversity.
There are a couple of stories from another two states, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, that I think illustrate our best and worst impulses in this area. These two stories show us that the road to a better world isn’t without a few historical potholes, but we do get it right more often than we get it wrong.
If you’re a student of American history and religion, as I am, then you’re no doubt familiar with the name Roger Williams. He’s celebrated today as the founder of Rhode Island, and the Baptist church he started in Providence, Rhode Island, still stands today.
But how did he come to found a new colony?
He was tossed out of Massachusetts. Banished. Exiled.
What was his sin? He advocated for the bold idea that civil authorities had no business telling a person how to worship. He advocated tolerance, a position he came to honestly after seeing religious separatists persecuted in England before he fled to the New World.
To his fellow Puritan ministers in Massachusetts this idea -- tolerance of another’s beliefs -- was too much to bear. His erstwhile colleagues referred to it as, “Satan’s policy to plead an indefinite and boundless toleration.”
So, Roger Williams, an early believer in coming together United in Diversity, was cast out on the cusp of winter 1635 into the arms of the Narragansett Indians who saved his little band. It’s no wonder he called his new home Providence.
Fast forward 155 years.
It’s 1790, and the nation is only months old. The Constitution has only recently been ratified. And George Washington decides he needs to visit Rhode Island to patch things up with the crankiest state in the Union -- Rhode Islanders were the last to approve the Constitution (they had some gripes).
Never forget: Washington was a shrewd politician, and his ulterior motive for this visit was to campaign for what we call today The Bill of Rights. He met with the citizens of Newport, including members of the oldest synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue. An exchange of letters followed. Washington’s response to the Jewish community of Newport was brief -- only 340 words. But it cemented forever the sort of nation we were to become in matters of faith.
Here is the key quote: For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
That was music to the ears of the Jews of Newport, of course. With these few but pointed and salient words, the Father of our country laid down a marker, and he did it early. Be good citizens. Worship as you please. And you’ll get no trouble from us. You may have fled persecution, but you’re safe here.
United in Diversity indeed. It’s this nation’s super power. I pray we never forget it.