The Dangers of Suppressing Religious Freedom

Tisa Wenger

Americans recently observed the first anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which 11 were killed and six wounded.

A year earlier, white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted the slogan, “Jews shall not replace us.”

Synagogues around the country have also been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. Last month, during the Jewish High Holy Days, a swastika and the word “Trump” were spray-painted on the steps of the law school at Yale University, where I teach.

This is not the first time that hate speech and violence against Jews and other racial and religious minorities have flared in the U.S. Recent events mirror the situation in the early 20th century, when white Christian nationalists in the United States demonized immigrants and treated Jews as a danger to the nation.

Then, as now, people on all sides of these disputes invoked the American ideal of religious freedom. As I show in my book “Religious Freedom,” while some Americans used this constitutional protection to justify a politics of exclusion, others drew a widening circle of inclusion.

The politics of exclusion

At the turn of the 20th century, white Christian nationalists saw Jews and other religious outsiders as threats to the nation and used religious freedom as a weapon against them.

In 1892, writing for an anti-Semitic publication “Sound the Tocsin of Alarm,” Orville Jones, a lawyer and Methodist layman from Missouri, warned that the Jew had a “persistent determination… to practice fraud, extortion, and especially usury.”

He went on to add that “the Jew” was now recruiting others to join “his crime against civilization.”

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