Four Essential American Freedoms: How Are We Doing?
Thoughts for Thanksgiving 2007
Address given at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
By Rabbi Robert Sternberg
Temple Israel, Athol Massachusetts
November 18, 2007
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. It is always a joyful week for me. As a Jewish American whose ancestors escaped Czarist Russia and the Nazi occupation of Poland and Lithuania, I can only look at my family history with deep gratitude. Had my father’s family not fled the oppression of the Czar, and had my mother’s parents not escaped from the same region just before the Nazis occupied it, I might never have been born. Or if I would have had the privilege to be born, I might have been born in a place where a new oppressive power, Communist Russia, would have had control of my life and possibly my soul. For this reason I celebrate Thanksgiving with true joy and gratitude.
But as a person born in the aftermath of the Holocaust, there is other, not quite so joyful things I think about on Thanksgiving. It is in the spirit of affirming the importance of our American Thanksgiving that I offer you some critical reflections and thoughts. I hope these ideas and questions will engage us as a nation and as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Americans, to make a stronger commitment to work together for the betterment of our American society.
Let me start by reminding you how our nation began. In 1776, we made a “Declaration of Independence”. It begins with these words, which as children, all of us committed to memory: “We hold these truths to be self-evident:
- that all men are created equal
- that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights
- that among those rights are:
- and the pursuit of happiness"
This vision of equality-- of equal rights for everyone is elaborated on in the Bill of Rights in our American Constitution. There, Four Essential Freedoms are enumerated. They are:
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedom of Religion
- Freedom from Want
- reedom from Fear
How were we doing at the time these words were stated?
Were we living then in a way that affirmed that all people were created equal?
Were Native Americans believed to be “created equal” to those Americans who came here from Europe?
Was every human being living in this country “treated equal
The Declaration clearly states that “all men are created equal.” What about women? Were women who did not have the right to vote or hold political office treated as “equals”? What about the women who were accused of being witches and hung or burned at the stake?
Were there people in this country who were treated as commodities rather than as people? Commodities that could be bought and sold and traded as slaves—with no regard for their humanity as members of a family?
Were there people in some parts of our country who were excluded because their religion differed from that of those in power?
Were there people here who were starving or homeless-- dying of starvation, sick from having to live with no roof over their heads?
Were there people who lived in fear—fear of speaking out? Fear of becoming victims themselves if they dared to speak out? People who suppressed what they knew and pretended that they didn’t see anything?
Our founders had a noble vision. At least their words were those that came from a noble place. But how many people at that time in our history understood nothing of that noble vision?
I want to move the historical clock dramatically forward in time—about one hundred and fifty years. By that time, the United States of America was well established. It was beginning to emerge as a world power. We had fought a Civil War. Those who had been slaves were now considered “free”. We had become a nation of immigrants and the most desirable country on the planet to immigrate to. All the immigrants were being “Americanized”—were becoming a homogenous “melting pot” in which their languages and cultures were being diluted and washed away to let them be blended in to a homogenous American whole. Some parts of our country no longer had Native Americans living in them. Some Native American tribes were no longer in existence. The majority of others who still identified as “Native American” were living on reservations. And reservation schools were actively working hard to “Americanize” these people by punishing them for speaking their ancient languages or practicing their traditional rituals.
The date was January 6, 1941. In his State of the Union Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke eloquently about our Four Essential Freedoms and he gave his own definition and meaning to them:
- Freedom of Speech and Expression: President Roosevelt said that this meant that “…people are free to express different points of view without being afraid of being censored or punished. It includes freedom of the press, (now called “the media”), as well as freedom of the individual. It includes freedom to listen as well as to speak, and freedom to have access to information...”
- Freedom of Religion: In President Roosevelt’s words, this meant that “…there is a part of every individual called “the spirit” that belongs only to himself and to his G-d. “Freedom of Religion meant showing a kind of respect to each individual implying that every person has his/her own source of moral values. The miracle of democracy, with “freedom of religion” meant that we can achieve social unity and peace while practicing many different kinds of worship...”
- Freedom from Want: President Roosevelt spoke powerful words that day—and showed tremendous foresight. He said that “Freedom from Want” meant that humanity possesses the technical ability to produce enough to give everyone the necessities of daily life. (This was said in 1941, when this technology was much less advanced than it is today….) Great civilizations of the past were never free from wide-spread poverty and very few of them produced enough to make possible a decent standard of living for all their members. But today (in 1941), the right to work, the right to fair pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and security—and the right to live in an atmosphere of free enterprise—mean that every person has the natural right to be nourished and sheltered—not because the world owes them this but because if people are unable to fill these primary needs, they become stagnant and malignant and war (I add the word “revolution”) becomes their last resort…”
- Freedom from Fear: Here President Roosevelt fell painfully silent. He said little that was specific about THIS “freedom” and he buried his words in generalities and platitudes. What he said was that “Freedom from Fear” that people must feel secure and protected and safe. No structure for peace, no design for a good world, can have any solidity or strength or meaning unless the shadow of fear is dispersed. People must be united by a conviction that all people ultimately want the same thing from life—freedom, peace, security, and the chance to live as individuals….”
This explanation of the meaning of our Four Freedoms was said at the beginning of 1941. A war was on in Europe. Japan had, a few years before, invaded and occupied part of China. Poland, France, Holland, Luxemburg, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Norway were all under Nazi occupation. Ghettos for Jews were already being established in occupied Poland. Jews in other countries were being subjected to various forms of terror and persecution. Hitler was already contemplating breaking his pact with Stalin and invading the Soviet Union. The United States had not entered the war yet. And the United States State Department was actively obstructing Jewish immigration to the United States. The Jewish community in America was anything but “Free from Fear”. Nazi support groups like the German American Bund on the East Coast and the Silver Shirts on the West Coast were actively promoting support of Nazi ideas. Other Americans were equally “not free from fear”. African American’s were dealing with “Jim Crow” customs in the South and different forms of prejudice and segregation in the North. President Roosevelt knew about all of this and so it is not surprising to me that he had very little to say about how our country was doing about preserving its “Freedom from Fear”.
So how were we doing in 1941? Were we living up to the values of our Four Essential Freedoms?
- Freedom of the Press: The press was, in theory, free and able to report about anything it wanted to report about. But so much important news went unreported—or scurrilously reported. Concerning the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe, the only real news was reported in the Jewish newspapers. Most of these were in Yiddish rather than in English, and if you did not read Yiddish, you would not be able to read these reports. The regular American press gave minimal coverage to these events and usually buried them in the back pages of the paper. In August 1942, official word reached our government about the “Final Solution” and the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe. It was not reported on at all until November of 1942 and then it was buried in the back pages of the paper in relatively small print.
- Freedom of Religion: We seemed to be not doing too badly with this. People were certainly free to worship (or to not worship) as they chose, but were they treated as equals by their neighbors if they worshipped differently? How much prejudice existed in our country against people whose religions were “different”? And who among those marginalized was actually “free” to talk about it? In the Jewish community, there were many who tried to blend in and not be noticed as Jews.
- Freedom from Want: President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” did much to get the American economy going after the Depression and to free people from “Want”. This was something that the President could be proud of. The “New Deal” was and remains a milestone in American vision and progress. President Roosevelt’s words in his 1941 State of the Union address reflected this pride.
- Freedom From Fear: As I stated earlier, our country’s record on ensuring “Freedom from Fear” during this period was abysmal.
And now we need to take a look at how we are doing today with our Four Essential Freedoms.
How “Free” is our Press today? Is it more “free” than it used to be? I leave the answer to that in the arena of critical debate.
How are we doing on “Freedom of Religion” today? In our post-Holocaust world, I am proud to say that, at least in this area, our country is not only doing well. It leads the way among the most progressive nations in the world for ensuring Freedom of Religion. Christians and Jews are coming together today in a way that we have never come together before. We are coming together as partners in a dialogue—not as opponents in a polemic debate. We are speaking to each other as equals, too. To me, as a Jew, nothing is of greater importance then to be seen by my Christian brothers and sisters as an equal—as someone who, like them, is in a special, living covenantal relationship with our Creator. It is a great miracle of our post-Holocaust generation to now be seen by most Christians as equal partners in a dialogue rather than as objects for proselytizing. To live in an age where I and my Jewish brothers and sisters are seen and treated by most Christians as equals is also a reflection the work done in our country to ensure freedom of religion. “Freedom of religion” in America has no equal in the world. This is something to be thankful for as we celebrate Thanksgiving.
What about “Freedom from Want”? I have more questions than I have answers. Do we still have homeless? Do we still have hungry? To go back to President Roosevelt’s words: Does everyone in America have adequate clothing? Adequate food? Adequate shelter? Adequate and fair pay? And two issues prominent in the political arena today—Does every American have adequate medical care? And adequate security? If the answer to any of these questions is “no!” than we have work to do, together as Jews, as Christians, as Muslims, and especially as Americans, to see to it that our society is genuinely “Free from Want”.
And lastly, “Freedom from Fear”. This is the freedom to which I have personally dedicated my own life’s work. And it will be an ongoing struggle that will not end in my lifetime.
As a Jew and as a person whose life has been committed to fighting prejudice of all kinds, the best I can say is that I am part of the struggle to help our society live up to these ideals. I am convinced that this struggle will still be with the world even after I am gone. I am also convinced that each of us has his/her own unique role to play in this battle. Each of us has what I call “talking privileges” with different people. We need to recognize this and empower ourselves to actively and effectively make use of our “talking privileges”. Only by working together to open the minds and hearts of other people, to get them to stand up to every form of prejudice and injustice, can we ever hope to effect change and make our world a better and safer and more “free from fear” place for everyone.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims have equal roles to play in this. We also share many of the same traditions. The Hebrew Scriptures (Hebrew Bible) is Holy and Sacred for Christians and Muslims as well as for Jews. It was the prophet Malachi, who said, “Have we not all One Father? Has not One G-d created all of us? Why should we be faithless to each other and profane the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10)
If we are all the creation of One G-d, of the same G-d…., if we are all members of the same family, the HUMAN family….. can we not commit ourselves to work together always, to ensure that every member of our family, every member of our human race, is ensured the same rights and the same obligations?
As Americans— Christian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Americans of other persuasions—don’t we have the obligation to work together to make sure that the temperature of our society is healthy and strong?
Here are some things I think we CAN be thankful for on Thanksgiving. These things help us take stock of where we are and of where we need to be going:
- We can give thanks for our common human origins.
- We can give thanks for our responsibilities as protectors and preservers of our earth—in Hebrew we have a word for this—we are all called upon by G-d to be Shomrei Ha’Adamah, “Keepers of the Earth”.
- We can give thanks to G-d for the strength to do our part—for the blessings we have received, and for the ability to give of ourselves to others.
- We can give thanks for the talents with which we are blessed—and the opportunity to use them to make our world a better place. Jewish tradition calls this our tikkun—the individual and unique gifts we have been given by G-d to use for “repairing the world” and healing it.
Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot said it best, when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Let’s greet the Thanksgiving season by giving thanks for the power to stand up to our responsibilities as Americans and as people of faith and for the opportunity to do something that can make a difference in our world.