A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

More to come…


Clarity of Vision

We all benefit when we are clear about what matters.

I  have always admired the clarity of vision that comes through the work and writings of Morris Vogel, the retiring president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  Morris is one of my colleagues at the National Trust, and I value our professional relationship.  On a personal level, Morris is someone I look to for both advice and inspiration.

In these days when the nation is – once again – struggling with its checkered history on immigration, the Tenement Museum has stepped time and again into these conversations in ways powerful, relevant and timely.  I found the following statement, which Morris recently shared with his board and staff, a great reminder of how clarity of vision and mission is so important in finding one’s voice.

“Tenement Museum leadership in the museum field means that our colleagues at other institutions regularly ask how we handle difficult issues, and we’ve recently fielded requests for information about how we determined our pro-active response to the government’s refugee ban. The answer is that the Board of Trustees had already adopted a mission statement, strategic plan, and vision statement that spoke with clarity about the Museum’s role and purposes. Our mission statement calls for the Museum to “forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” Our strategic plan calls for the Museum to “provide leadership to the national and international historical museum community by demonstrating how institutions can utilize the past to illuminate key issues of the present.” And our vision statement calls for the Museum to “demonstrate to visitors and the larger public, viscerally and intellectually, that America’s open society, democratic institutions, cultural creativity, economic vitality, and ability to accommodate difference owe to our experience as an immigrant nation.” That kind of clarity allows us to offer powerful historical programs and to speak effectively about present-day immigration to the broader public.”

In three sentences around mission, vision, and strategy, you have an incredible example of how understanding what matters can direct one’s life work.  Morris then continued with this call to relevance:

“The fact that a nation could build and continually renew itself through the hopes that brought uprooted peoples to our shores has never been more important than it is now. The stories of those dreamers form the heart of the Tenement Museum. Let me know if you want to visit with us—in these unsettled times—to renew your commitment to America’s enduring values.”

I have always been proud of the National Trust’s association with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and never more so than during these unsettled times.  We will miss Morris’ presence at our meetings when he retires this summer, but something tells me that this clear voice for justice and the importance of our past stories to life today will continue.  Thank you, good friend, for reminding us of how to be clear about what matters.

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum (photo credit: LESTM)

Have a good week.

More to come…


Religious Freedom 101: A Lesson from Old Places

The First Baptist Church

A reminder from The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

We are hearing a great deal these days about religious freedom. Much of it comes from individuals who appear – from their comments – to know little of our country’s history.  For the past three days, I’ve been immersed in a state where all Americans would be well advised to come for a class on Religious Freedom 101.

One of the truly misunderstood stories in American history is that of Rhode Island and the establishment of religious freedom. My father – that lonely breed of Southern Christian liberal – has spent the past decade or more writing letters to the editor that remind his fellow church-goers of the importance of the separation of church and state. For my part, I’ve been in Providence and Newport this week, and took the time to visit two of the landmarks of the nation’s move to ensure that all had religious freedom, including the right not to worship.

Friday, I was in Newport for a series of meetings that began at Touro Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark and an affiliate site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Standing as a landmark to religious freedom for all Americans, Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building in the United States.  As described on the National Trust website:

A structure of exquisite beauty and design, steeped in history and ideals, the synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.

The congregation was founded in 1658 by the descendants of Jewish families who had fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and who themselves left the Caribbean seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.

Touro Synagogue

Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

By the time those families came to Rhode Island, the “lively experiment” that was Rhode Island was already underway.  An exhibit in the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitor’s Center (and captured on the website) explains it best:

Rhode Island’s experience was a catalyst to the development of these values (that the acceptance of the separation of church and state was a uniquely American value).  Under the terms of its founding Charter, Rhode Island stood alone among the colonies in its desire to “hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil State may stand and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments.”

Roger Williams and his followers were convinced that religion was a matter of conscience between an individual and his God, not the government. The founding documents for Providence, Rhode Island indicate a clear division between the public, civil realm and the private world of belief:

We, whose names are here under, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major assent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town-fellowship, and such others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things.

“Only in civil things.” This phrase, assumed to be from the pen of Roger Williams himself, establishes the principal of religious liberty that was to become the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the Rhode Island Colony, only matters of civil interest were to be considered by the town-fellowship. Matters of theology, doctrine, and religious practice were to be considered apart from the realm of civic discourse and within the confines of the individual consciousness or “soul-thought.”

The Charter of the Rhode Island Colony, negotiated in 1663 by Newport founder John Clark on behalf of the Rhode Island colonists from King Charles II of England, clearly demonstrates that religious freedom was the prime reason for the colony’s existence. Rhode Island’s Charter, which served as state constitution until 1842, includes this unique provision:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.

Touro’s unique place in American history came about in 1790, when in response to a letter from the congregation, President George Washington eloquently defined the new nation’s standard for religious freedom and civil liberties. He declared that America would…“give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Providence – where I spent the rest of the trip – is a city that celebrates its religious history.  Few communities carry off having a “Steeple Street” with the history that Providence does.  (It is even obvious in the city’s name!)

Steeple Street

Steeple Street, Providence

The most important of those houses of worship, from a historical standpoint, is The First Baptist Church, Providence.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Note that I didn’t write “the First Baptist Church in Providence.”  No, this is THE FIRST Baptist Church IN AMERICA. 

Historical Marker

Historical Marker on The First Baptist Church, Providence,

Coupled with the Roger Williams National Memorial, managed by the National Park Service, The First Baptist Church tells an important story that is as fresh as today’s headlines.  I’ve given a couple of speeches recently that focus on the relevance of historic places today.  Here’s what I said in the most recent one:

When we change our focus (in preservation, from buildings) to people, we become serious about relevance. In many of the places we save, and in the way we approach their conservation, we often talk about the “period of significance.” But at the National Trust we are turning that on its head, and asking, “What if the period of significance is now?”

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Abraham Lincoln conceived the Emancipation Proclamation, understanding that “the period of significance is now” leads us to use of the site as the springboard for exhibits, lectures, and projects that address human trafficking in the 21st century. Slavery, unfortunately, didn’t end in 1865.

Old places can be eloquent in  helping us think about how the lessons of the past inform us about today’s issues…whether those issues be human trafficking (Lincoln’s Cottage), immigration (The Lower East Side Tenement Museum), labor relations and income inequality (Pullman), or religious liberty (Touro Synagogue and The First Baptist Church).

Visit a historic site, and connect the past with today’s big issues.

More to come…