Free Speech and Religion

Reflections on the Role of Religion in Society: Meryl Chertoff

January 24, 2022  • Meryl Justin Chertoff

“We as a Jewish people are unshakably, doggedly, eternally captives of hope.”

Those were the words of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl last week, after she was thrust into negotiations with the terrorist who took hostages at a Texas synagogue hundreds of miles from her own in Manhattan. Ten years ago, it was hope that, together with colleagues from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, caused me to look at the assets of the Aspen Institute—its convening power, its action orientation, and its networks across the policy, academic, and advocacy communities—as a resource that could be applied to combat the rising threat of extremism in America. My faith in this work was organic: as a member of a minority faith, who grew up in a religiously diverse community with heavy immigrant influences, I have known my entire life that our differences make us stronger, not weaker.

From the beginning, we took what my years in government taught me was an all-hazards approach, knowing it did not matter what political valance an extremist claims. The threat lies in their poisonous rhetoric, and their willingness to use polarization, disinformation, and violence in service to their goals. The tools that an open society has to combat this are the power of reason, of community, and ultimately, the power of love.

I have known my entire life that our differences make us stronger, not weaker.

Our work, in short, like that of so many other organizations with which the Inclusive America Project is allied, is to build what Dr. King called the beloved community. The success we, and groups like ours, have achieved was illustrated when the imams and reverends of Coleyville and surrounding communities rushed to praise Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, for being a member of their faith community, and he of theirs. This was always our vision: to build bridges and to build resilience.

Through the early years incubating the effort, in the reports Principled Pluralism, and Pluralism in Peril, we charted threats that have since become more acute, but also opportunities for growth. Under Zeenat Rahman, the networks expanded, and IAP’s institutional capacity grew. Now, under the leadership of Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, IAP has emerged to the place where I always hoped it would be positioned at the Aspen Institute: as the Religion and Society Program. Congratulations to my successors on this recognition of the central place religion holds in American life as a force for positive change—and, yes, love—as the wellspring of hope that holds all of us who believe in progress, its captives, and its servants.

Meryl Justin Chertoff is the executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law and Adjunct Professor of Law. She was executive director of the Inclusive America Project from 2013-2019.

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