WASHINGTON — In advance of Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress, the first such speech from a religious leader, Interfaith Alliance Executive Director Rabbi Jack Moline sent the following letter to members of Congress. In this letter, Rabbi Moline raises several concerns about how religious freedom wil be respected during this historic event, and calls on members of Congress to remember that their first duty is to their constituents and to the Constitution, not to their private religious beliefs.
This month, you will witness a rare and historic occasion when Pope Francis addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Pope Francis will be not just the first Pope, but the first religious leader to address a joint session of Congress. Pope Francis is a compelling and compassionate religious leader who has already had a major impact on world events during his short tenure.
On behalf of Interfaith Alliance, which represents individuals committed to faith and freedom representing seventy-five faith traditions and those of no particular faith tradition, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a recommendation on the context in which you listen to the Pope’s remarks. I ask you to be acutely aware that you are an elected representative of a secular democracy, one that guarantees the religious freedom of all, but shows no favor to any particular faith.
Congress is entitled to invite whomever it likes. Pope Francis, like other world leaders, can give you a greater understanding of the world we live in. I expect Pope Francis will speak freely on political issues of the day, and to speak from a place of religious motivation and doctrine.
While this occasion may not violate the legal strictures of the First Amendment, it is incumbent upon you and your colleagues to ensure that it respects the spirit of America’s mandate of religious freedom. While he is a religious leader, this is not a religious event. While his positions may be driven by his faith, what you do with the information he provides must be motivated by secular purpose. Faith can inform our values, but it cannot be the goal of our public policy. Regardless of your personal religious commitment – whether your theological inclination is to agree with Pope Francis or to oppose him – your primary commitment must remain to your constituents and to the Constitution.
When Pope Francis speaks about specific policies in his address, place his recommendations against the backdrop of areligious interests and the necessary boundaries between religion and government. When Pope Francis makes a moral call to action and leadership, hear his voice as one among many. Take inspiration but not instruction from the Holy Father’s words. The government cannot act on the orders of religious leaders; we cannot make laws based on religious motivations alone.
It is a great honor to have Pope Francis directly address you in a joint session of Congress. But it is an even greater honor to serve your constituents, the Constitution and the country. If the Pope’s speech puts your duty to your faith and your duty to the nation in tension with one another, I hope we can count on you to navigate that conflict with an understanding of the religious diversity of your constituents, a devotion to the First Amendment, and your oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the Untied States… not Scripture.
Rabbi Jack Moline
Interfaith Alliance is a network of people of diverse faiths and beliefs from across the country working together to build a resilient democracy and fulfill America’s promise of religious freedom and civil rights not just for some, but for all. We mobilize powerful coalitions to challenge Christian nationalism and religious extremism, while fostering a better understanding of the healthy boundaries between religion and government. We advocate at all levels of government for an equitable and just America where the freedoms of belief and religious practice are protected, and where all persons are treated with dignity and have the opportunity to thrive. For more information visit interfaithalliance.org.