Free Speech and Religion

Meryl J. Chertoff’s Reflections and Remarks from “Religion and Society: The First Decade”

October 20, 2022  • Meryl Justin Chertoff

On September 22, 2022, The Religion & Society Program gathered with partners, colleagues, network members, and friends to celebrate ten years of work in building religious pluralism. Several leaders offered remarks and reflections on the last decade and offered insight as to what the future might hold. 

Meryl Justin Chertoff founded the Inclusive America Project (IAP), which later became the Religion & Society Program. Her work, beginning with the “America the Inclusive” day-long conference in partnership with InterFaith Youth Core (now Interfaith America), and subsequent Distinguished Panels in 2012 and 2013, led to the founding of IAP and laid the solid foundation of pluralism work at the Aspen Institute. Her remarks at the ten-year anniversary event, “Religion & Society: The First Decade” are presented here.  

“When we began the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute in 2012, it was with the idea that a core American value—our belief in religious pluralism—was at risk.

With the leadership, and more importantly, the moral support of the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Harvard Kennedy School’s David Gergen, and the intellectual capital of many in this room, we produced two reports, Principled Pluralism and Pluralism in Peril. Just the names of the sequence of these reports should have provided a hint as to where this trajectory was going nationally. 

But I want to note something here about our process: We were a very diverse group, and for me the most illuminating and challenging relationships were not with my Muslim colleagues, or my Sikh ones, because, like me, they were accustomed to being minorities. Accommodation with difference was in our bones. It was with our evangelical colleagues, who, at least to me. represented “the majority,” the people who were here first, or believed they were, and who were trying to learn to make room for the rest of us. 

It was from their struggles to accommodate change that I learned the most. They had to sell pluralism to their councils and associations. They had to take risks. Alec Hill, who at the time ran InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, didn’t need this headache, as my grandma would have said, but he took it on. And when we came to the end, and he nearly had it at the finish line, he asked one thing of me: Would we use the term “principled pluralism” to describe the project of that first report? That was the term that was being used in his organization and the evangelical allies of this movement. Of course, we said yes. That was what it took.

I would like to be here celebrating the successes of IAP, now the Religion and Society Program, and there are many. Under the stewardship of Zeenat Rahman, who I mentored, and now Simran Jeet Singh, the project has grown in scope, staffing and ambition, and has won many friends. It has even overcome what I think was early skepticism at the Aspen Institute, whose roots in the humanist movement may have engendered some concern about what a project with the word “religion” in its mission statement was meant to do.

So, in hindsight, and from my current perspective as a podium instructor at a law school, I thought I might take us back a few more years, to some of what the framers saw as the peril and promise of religion in the American experiment. 

When we talk about the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise and its mirror image of non-establishment, we often do that in a vacuum. But the framers were interested also in those guarantees as an escape valve. They knew that if there was one thing that could command the loyalties of a person more than their community, it was their faith. So not only is the guarantee of speech and free exercise in the Constitution, but there is also a guarantee of diversity through the Tenth Amendment, which created a second sovereign for each citizen. Why has that been so important? Because it is always important for people, after conflict, to have a place to climb down. Diversity is important, but so is sanctuary. (And of course, the Fourteenth Amendment came along to assure that individual rights would not be where the pinch comes in.)

Why was that? Because the greatest fear of the framers was faction—the danger of faction, as Madison, writing in Federalist Paper No. 10, said. It was not minority factions though that worried them. It was majority factions; factions that would tyrannize the vulnerable and the helpless. Faction was the greatest threat to democracy, and one motivation of the original understanding was to thwart it. One part of the design to thwart faction was decentralization, which divides power, and at its best, supports human flourishing. This is where the crafting of loyalties lies—in communities, through the enterprise of self-governance. It is why, after l left this program, it was to teach and write about state and local government.  And this is why, right now, witnessing the challenges to fair rules for the game, I am worried. If you are not also worried, you have been playing Wordle on The New York Times app, and not reading the news.

We are entering a period of faction: faction based on ignorance of the true tenets of the major faiths; based on otherization; based on ignorance of the science which is a gift of God through our learning to discern his design through nature. Religion will be used, and is being used, in the service of faction. 

The opposite of faction? Perhaps we can think of it in terms of an even older concept: the commons. The commons is not owned by you, or me, but it is shared by all, and when we enter it, there are a set of mutual obligations we acquire. Otherwise, it becomes the scene of the tragedy of the commons, where nothing is left, for each has selfishly taken too much. The commons can be a physical space, but for the purposes of your work, it is a spiritual space. We need to learn to share the commons, or nothing will be left to any of us. That does not require us to engage in syncretism, or to relinquish our deep belief in the truth of our own faith. But it does require us to acknowledge that our autonomy exists only to the extent that others enjoy their autonomy. 

There is a lovely movie I saw recently, The Square, about a curator of a museum in Sweden. He is bringing to the museum an installation called “The Square,” which is meant to be a commentary on just this: the obligations we have to each other. Through a series of misadventures, this man, who is something of an anti-hero, fails over and over again to live up to the aspiration embodied in the idea of “The Square.” And yet, with all his imperfections, he feels the impetus to do it. He does some crazy things, veering from selfishness to altruism. But at the end, after yet another failure, you have a sense that he will go on, trying and failing to reach that better version of himself. As we must too. Particularly at a time like this, we must be willing to fail, over and over, because if pluralism is about anything, it is about this hope, this belief in the shared commons.”       

Meryl Justin Chertoff is Adjunct Professor of Law and Director of The Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law. Meryl is also the former Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Justice & Society Program and the founder of the Inclusive America Project, the precursor to the Religion & Society Program.