How lessons from Easter and Passover should help us preserve religious freedom
In Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston's Moses famously pleads Pharaoh repeatedly to, "Let my people go!" It was a classic rendition of an ancient clash between the Israelites, who had been a favored people since their predecessor had helped spare Egypt from famine, and a domineering Pharoah, "who knew not Joseph."
The Bible recounts that after Moses' appeal to Pharaoh to release the Hebrews, all firstborns throughout Egypt were slain except those who followed specific instructions given by God. Broken, Pharaoh finally relented and allowed Israel to depart.
To commemorate God's deliverance from Egypt's persecution and bondage, generations of Jewish families have observed Passover, starting on the 15th day of Nissan, typically near the beginning of April.
More than a millenium later, the people of Israel were overseen and oppressed by a complicated partnership between Rome and Herod Antipas, a puppet king of the Jews and grandson of Herod the Great. The people of the time held out hope for one even greater than Moses, a Messiah, who would come to free them for all time.
Jesus of Nazareth emerged, providing "signs and wonders" foretold by ancient prophets. He and His followers were similarly rejected and persecuted by the prevailing powers. During the Easter season, Christians commemorate Jesus' transcendent suffering and resurrection as the ultimate deliverance - from sin and death.
These events are set in times of severe oppression by the prevailing culture and political powers. Pharaoh's stature as both king and diety gave him nearly unlimited power over his subjects. Israel was ruled by a cruel alliance between the Roman procurator, Herod Antipus, and Jerusalem's religious elders.
These cases illustrate the oft-repeated pattern where religious-sponsored states, or state-sponsored religions, succumb to the poisons of power and commit atrocities. As a result, some argue against any religious influence in public dialogue or policy. But anti-religious dogma has also seen its share of horrors, including the French Revolution, Stalinism and Maoism.
Rather than simple-mindedly building a barricade between faith and civic involvement, the Founding Fathers elegantly protected religion while channeling its good aims and passions through carefully crafted electoral and legislative processes to help shape a moral and just society.
With a remarkably brief clause they reframed the age-old debate, where the First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This delicate, daring path protects religious practice and expression in the public arena as a key ingredient of liberty.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French observer of the American experiment in the 19th century, supported the approach by claiming, "Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith." John Adams also concluded, "Liberty can no more exist without virtue . . . than the body can live and move without a soul."
They were right. When compared to other lands and times, America has been a dramatic explosion of civil liberty and unrivaled prosperity that has drawn tens of millions to its shores.
As in its infancy, America's hearts and homes and civic life remain deeply moved by faith. According to a 2012 Pew Foundation study, 92 percent of Americans believe in God in some form, including more than 21 percent of atheists and 55 percent of agnostics. Overall, more than 4 out of 5 people signaled an affiliation with a formal religion.
Almost two-thirds of America look to their religious texts as the word of God. For 74 percent of people the afterlife will involve heaven, and 59 percent believe in some form of hell. Naturally, individuals who look to scripture as a moral code that is tied to likely rewards or punishment in the afterlife will be more self-governing, a key civic virtue.
Stanford Professor William Damon recently argued that, "A free society requires, for its very survival, a citizenry devoted in large part to moral and civic virtue." He goes on to explain that, "When virtue loses its public footing, too few citizens accept the responsibilities necessary for sustaining liberty in that society."
As individuals, Passover and Easter are reminders of deliverance from oppression and personal failings. As a nation, they should also serve as reminders to protect the key role religious freedom plays in the development of private virtue and the sustaining of American liberty.