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Serving a Larger Purpose

July 5, 2012
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George Washington would likely be astonished to see his words emblazoned on SEPTA bus panels all around town: "To Bigotry No Sanction."

But we should be thankful to the National Museum of American Jewish History, sponsor of the ads, for forcing us to confront our first president's historic mandate, especially as we celebrate our nation's founding this week.

The words come from a letter Washington wrote to the president of the lone synagogue in Newport, R.I., which he visited as part of a tour of the Ocean State in appreciation of its vote to ratify the Constitution.

The letter, the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the museum, declared that the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

The posters trumpeting the museum's exhibit, "George Washington & Religious Freedom" -- which opened to coincide with July 4th and runs through Sept. 30 -- do more than provide a good marketing tool for the museum as it seeks to broaden its reach beyond the Jewish community.

They -- and more importantly, the exhibit itself, which includes other elements that address these fundamentals of religious freedom -- serve a larger purpose. They compel us to reflect upon the words of the historic letter and to grapple with their relevance today.

Washington's letter, a mere 300 or so words, also includes this line: "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Though Washington's letter was addressed to Jews, similar statements were made to other faith communities.

The words are a vital reminder to those anti-Semites who continue to lurk among us.

But just as critically, they represent a powerful statement about religious freedom and minority rights, tenets upon which our nation was founded and has prospered.

They are not mere words but a guide to live by. Their underpinning is what distinguishes us a nation.

At a time when our nation is grappling with economic, social and political distress, how we approach issues like immigration policy, economic disparity and budget crises should reflect these values so eloquently articulated by our first president.

Our country may be 236 years old, but the lessons embodied in the words of our founding fathers need heeding today just as much -- if not more so -- as they did all those many years ago.

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