Lyle Denniston, the National Constitution Center’s constitutional literacy adviser, looks at the constitutional significance of the Washington National Cathedral hosting a Muslim prayer service on Friday.
Many Americans, not just the courts, help shape the meaning of the Constitution in the nation’s life. This series, appearing from time to time, explains the actual or potential contributions of these other individuals, groups, or institutions. Today’s Constitution-maker is the Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal institution that is an eminence in the capital city’s cultural life and a towering figure on its northern skyline. Seeking to advance the cause of religious tolerance, the Cathedral this Friday will be the site of a Muslim prayer service, for the first time in its history.
As the Founding generation sought to frame a new government to serve a nation of people, many of whom had made their way to America to escape religious strife, they made sure that the Constitution would reflect the cherished value of religious tolerance. Although “established churches” – that is, government-recognized religious bodies – existed in some of the colonies, that was not the model the Founders wanted to preserve.
In the modern era, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on United States soil on September 11, 2001, by individuals devoted to a radical jihadist movement, a suspicion of those of Muslim faith has spread across America. The establishment of mosques has been a source of severe resistance, Muslims have been subjected to violent attacks, and state legislatures have shown their displeasure by forbidding their state courts to rely in any way upon Sharia law.
Much of that reaction, very likely, was the product of fear, based upon group hostility even when the target of those worries was little understood. In those circumstances, it would clearly take courage to engage in outward displays of tolerance of the Muslim faith.
Now, in one of the most conspicuous displays of that tolerance, the Washington National Cathedral is opening its doors to a Muslim prayer service in the very hallowed chamber where funeral rites for presidents and for national heroes are part of its cultural mission.
Within Washington, there are not many private symbols that stand out in the community as defining emblems of the capital city, but the Cathedral that stands high above the quaint streets of Georgetown is clearly one of the most visible and respected. Its soaring towers and flying buttresses, and its pealing bells, regularly summon the city to share in that august symbolism. And the city wept for it when some of its most beautiful structures were badly damaged by an earthquake that also shook and damaged the Washington Monument.
For it now to be a venue embracing an open display of the Muslim faith sends a message that will resonate beyond the city’s borders. The special event apparently was worked out by the director of liturgy for the Cathedral, the Rev. Gina Campbell, and the South African ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rasool, a Muslim.
“This is a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations,” the ambassador said in a statement quoted in The Washington Post. “This needs to be a world in which all are free to believe and practice and in which we avoid bigotry, Islamaphobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Christianity and to embrace our humanity and to embrace faith.”
Of the efforts by the ambassador to secure the Cathedral as a site for the service, the Rev. Campbell told The Post, “he got the cathedral – he understands what it represents in the United States; he made the connection to the power of a cathedral to shape relationships, community, conversation, to do deep, important things.”
Unmentioned was the symbolism of celebrating the First Amendment. Under that Amendment, there can be no established religion, and there is the guarantee of freedom of expression of faith – the very core of religious tolerance. For braving the winds of “Islamaphobia,” the National Cathedral in Washington has made itself a Constitution-maker.
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