Religion Chautauqua Style

August 1, 2017

Instead of the mess in Washington, let’s talk about something positive. We just got back from a brief vacation in Chautauqua. I’ve been going there whenever possible since 1955 and I think it is valuable to talk about what it has meant to me, especially in this time when discussion of religion is so fraught.

Chautauqua had been founded in 1874 as an ecumenical summer school for protestant Sunday School teachers. Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, ownership of property was still restricted to Protestants, although lots of us learned to love the place regardless of religious commitments. I’ve always felt welcome, no matter whom I’m talking with, who’s running things or whose chapel I’m in. Neighbor or stranger, I’ve been included and welcomed. That welcome was important to me; it influenced me to move beyond the familiar terrain of where I grew up in my choice of college, law school and subsequent career decisions.

The spirit of Chautauqua has always taken the sermon on the mount seriously. As Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.”[1] For Franklin that service to mankind was by no means limited to people of one’s own faith.

This summer I took a seat in the amphitheater at the Sunday evening Sacred Song Service. For some years, religious gatherings in the amphitheater included material from across the Abrahamic tradition, the three great religions which all trace themselves back to the patriarch Abraham. I have heard this religious and primarily Christian congregation recite from the Qu’ran along with Christian and Jewish liturgical prayers, poetry and song. This year I was particularly struck by the inclusion of a gorgeous Native American chant.

It’s a good feeling, affirming our mutual respect and appreciation. No one is diminished as we celebrate the best in ourselves and in each other. We walk out feeling stronger, wiser, more confident. Bridges among us are also bilateral entree, enlarging our options, prospects and opportunities as well as our understanding. They amplify both the good we can do in this world as well as our own security.

We shared embraces with friends from many traditions and from all over the country, shared a home cooked dinner with a pair of old friends, both of whom are Lutheran ministers, and went out for dinner with a former student of mine here in Albany who has become a Methodist minister. There is of course nothing unusual about this. But it is worth noticing that this is one of the strengths of our country and of Chautauqua in particular.

Nor, at my recent college reunions, was I diminished by reciting a Muslim prayer at a memorial service for deceased members of my college class along with prayers from the Christian and my own Jewish tradition. We are and were all human, with the strengths and frailties common to mankind. We find a common end in death as we shared the world in life. We remember each other fondly without regard to where they prayed.

Part of what made this country a beacon for the world was that we left our prejudices behind in the old world our ancestors left. Our First Amendment is, after all, a cry for brotherhood as much as it is a restraint on government. We keep government out of the religious tent because we celebrate both the rights of all faiths and our common humanity in brother- and sisterhood.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 1, 2017.

[1] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin With Introduction And Notes (P F Collier & Son Company, ed. Charles W Eliot, New York (1909) [available online at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Release Date: May 22, 2008 [EBook #148] [Last updated: November 10, 2011]]

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