A new exhibit at the National Constitution Center looks at religious liberty in America.
In a divinely timed set of circumstances, the National Constitution Center unveiled an exhibit dedicated to religious freedom mere weeks before the city hosts two of the world’s most beloved religious figures: Pope Francis on Sept. 26 and the Dalai Lama of Tibet on Oct. 26.
“Religious Liberty and the Founding of America,” which opened Aug. 19, features 20 key documents from early American history that help explain and illustrate how freedom of religion evolved from a reason to settle in Colonial America to become a right guaranteed by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We have assembled some of the greatest art at the time of the founding fathers,” said Jeffrey Rosen, the president and chief executive officer of the center. “When we realized the pope was coming, all of us at the center thought that we should commemorate this great visit by helping citizens understand the sources of religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment. It’s wonderful to talk about religious liberty.”
Rosen has long been fascinated by how President George Washington was in favor of merging church and state, while President Thomas Jefferson wanted them separated. He added that ensuring that separation was no sure thing at the time: When the Constitution was written, nine of the 13 colonies had established churches and religion was an essential, incontrovertible part of American life.
“I want people to be inspired by the fundamental protection of religious freedom in the Constitution,” Rosen said.
Stephanie Meyer, the vice president of exhibitions at the center, said it was her goal to choose the best pieces that illustrate the story of religion in early American history. Meyer told the Jewish Exponent they chose to display the first pubic printing of the Constitution because that was the first time the American people were actually able to read it. She said most people don’t know that there were originally 12 amendments, but the other two were never ratified by the States. The first would have established how members of the House of Representatives would be allocated to the states; the other prohibited Congress from giving itself a raise. Congress could vote for a raise, but it would only apply from the beginning of the next Congress.
Her favorite part of the show is the Thanksgiving Proclamation made by Washington on Nov. 26, 1789, where he said it was a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious being that is the beneficent.”
“We could have made an entire exhibit around that Thanksgiving Proclamation,” she said. “People think the Thanksgiving Proclamation is about being grateful for the holiday, but it’s really for this country and what it allows us to be.”
Ivy Barsky, the chief executive officer of the National Museum of American Jewish History said she enjoyed the exhibit and how it complements the exhibits at her museum. She was impressed with the variety of historical artifacts on display.
“We love collaborating with the NCC, and this exhibition is another great opportunity to do so,” Barsky said in an email to the Exponent. The center has included a copy of The Touro Letter, the 1790 missive in support of religious freedom that Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, R.I.
The exhibit, which covers a number of topics like “Religious Liberty in Colonial America,” “Religious Liberty in the Constitution,” and “The Legacy of Religious Liberty, features seminal moments in American religious history like an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baptists in Connecticut, where he states that the first amendment builds “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Among the artifacts displayed in the “Religious Liberty in Colonial America” section is a printing by Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania’s Charter of Privileges from 1741. Written by William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvania colony based on Quaker ideals, in 1701, it emphasized religious tolerance. Also shown is a collection of public acts and ordinances from Virginia (1785). This includes the state’s revolutionary Declaration of Rights. Drafted by George Mason in 1776, it was the first such declaration in the colonies and influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s draft of the Bill of Rights.
The exhibit is free and is open through Jan. 3, 2016.
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