I will never forget the battle between Edward Rutledge of South Carolina and the outspoken John Adams of Massachusetts.
Thomas Jefferson had been tapped, somewhat unwillingly, to craft the Declaration of Independence. And though Adams saw the document as a brilliant articulation of everything this nascent country stood for, hammering home the freedoms that England choked, Rutledge took exception to it. Not in its entirety, but to one particular, irksome passage. About slavery.
Jefferson had written the freedom of African-American slaves into the fabric of the declaration; they, too, were American citizens, he affirmed. But Rutledge didn’t see it that way. Not only could the South not be pinpointed as the hotbed of slavery among the colonies (which Adams, among others, not so gently alluded to on a regular basis), but this infantile country could not forget that its economy rested, at least in part, on the slave trade. It couldn’t be abolished any more than the growth and sales of tobacco.
Eventually, wanting more independence than freedom for slaves, Adams, Jefferson, and the other supporters of the original declaration backed down. Jefferson struck the slavery clause and left the new country to continue its tradition of slavery. As Benjamin Franklin astutely noted, it was better to start with a nation free to grow and decide for itself what it would allow and what it wouldn’t, than to preclude the birth of the nation altogether over an issue like slavery. Imperfect men make imperfect countries.
This powerful scene from the sweltering days of the Second Continental Congress jumped to my mind the other night as I dreamt about a manifestation of inter-religious dialogue. Singing away in the shower, I envisioned something I called “Institute for Religious Learning.” The name needs work, I know, but the idea was simple: A common ground for religious traditions to present themselves on their own terms. I imagined a giant, circular grassy plain with houses of worship on the periphery. Anyone was free at any time to visit any of the communities on the circle. There would be events that would embrace all houses of worship, but they would also be allowed to function autonomously.
The problem: the ground rules. There would have to be some, naturally, and if they went so far as to say, “all are welcome,” then we might immediately have conflict. Some traditions specifically speak out against the actions of certain types of people—and certain people altogether. Homosexuality comes to mind, but there are others. If, somehow, I could make this dream a reality, what would the ground rules be? Would I risk losing the investment of communities of worshippers who aren’t willing to share space with those they intentionally exclude? Or would I want them to be a part of the circle of religions anyway?
Enter 1776. The words of Ben Franklin ring sadly true: Imperfect men make imperfect religion. If I want to build inroads and fire communication, there might be some things on which I have to compromise. Not finally, not absolutely, but remembering that there will never be a perfect assembly of the world’s religions. Someday, when the roads are heavily trodden, someone else can take up the mantle of inclusivity—more, at least, than I might be able to today.
And though that is counter to the idea of inter-religious dialogue, it is not counter to the idea of humanity. Progress comes in small doses and often with painful setbacks. If there is value in it, if there is truth in it, then it will continue and prevail. And I must have faith in that.