Opinion: Tree of Life showed us that freedom of the press and religion are intertwined
Pittsburgh — We occupy the same amendment.
The horror inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill only a week ago cut deeply across our community. The horror was obvious, it was palpable, it was searing, and for many of us here in Pittsburgh, it was profoundly personal. But — lost in the vivid accounts of the shootings, in the brave response of the police, in the solemn rituals of the funerals, in the enduring despair of those who had loved, or knew, or merely encountered the dead in a booth at the Murray Avenue Grill or in the line at Rita’s Italian Ice — is a story that is instructive for our community, and for our time, and it explains why our newsroom reacted so viscerally, and, in my mind, so valiantly, to this episode of evil.
It is a story as raw as the Tree of Life shots and as remote as the Constitutional Convention, and it deals with a vitally important, but much-ignored, aspect of the First Amendment, the sacred text that comprises perhaps the most important paragraph of all of American life and that, curiously but maybe not coincidentally, ties freedom of religion with freedom of the press — the two freedoms that were at the heart of our hard passage here in Pittsburgh the last week.
First the story. When the work of the Founders was completed, in late 1787, one strong objection mixed with the feeling of relief in what we now call Independence Hall, the very structure where, 11 years earlier, the Declaration of Independence was debated and approved. Thomas Jefferson, in Paris as an American diplomat, was troubled less about what was in the new governing document than about what was omitted. “A bill of rights,” Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
As the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a whisper from Jefferson was a shout to the new republic. Jefferson had not attended the Constitutional Convention, but he was a noted philosophical thinker, and before long the work of drafting an addendum to the Constitution was underway. There was great internal debate, as great ideas often prompt, as great ideas require. The result was 10 amendments. And when most of us refer to the First Amendment, we are talking about our rights as journalists, the sacred and, to our minds, vital freedom of the press.
That’s not the whole story, however, nor the whole First Amendment. The freedom of the press is only the second element of that first amendment. The freedom of religion is the first. And this week we saw, with unavoidable and unforgettable force, the confluence of rights and rites.
Religion. The press. Twin pillars of a free society. Each an affirmation of personal liberty and a an assertion of individual and institutional autonomy, the two were woven together from almost the very beginning of our republic, and tied in a circle of sadness here this week.
For it has been true from the start of this country, and apparent to us as journalists from the start of this week of remorse and remembrance, that the freedom to worship and the freedom to think, write and publish are inextricably linked in a way none of us considered before, in a way our neighbors and fellow countrymen very likely never considered before.
But the relationship is intimate and it is indispensable.
“Those focal points of personal and communal allegiance are vital platforms for speaking truth to power and for affirming the reality of truths not subject to state manipulation,” said Lawrence H. Tribe, the Harvard Law professor regarded as one of the leading authorities on Constitutional law. “That’s why every tyrannical regime begins by crushing both the independent press and independent religious bodies — and by replacing the truth as perceived and pronounced by honest journalists and incorruptible clergy with an official orthodoxy.”
Moments after I posed this notion to Professor Tribe, I sat with a gaggle of rabbis, grim-faced mourners in the brightly lit environs of the Milky Way kosher restaurant on Murray Avenue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. They were here for the funerals, some from great distance, and it struck them that the connection was not a nuance but a fundamental feature of our national character.
“They’re related, for sure, and they are at the core of the founding of the United States,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston. “If either of them is endangered, we are tearing at the fabric of what America is.”
His dining companion, Rabbi Adam Scheier of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Quebec, Canada, chimed in:
“They’re both efforts to try to make sense of the world — the press with that which is obvious and confusing at the age time, and religion, which renders what we don’t perceive but believe exists.”
The First Amendment speaks of the responsibility of speaking truth to power, and of using the power of truth for the betterment of society. They are sacred responsibilities leading to sacred acts.
But there is a third element to the First Amendment, the right of the people to assemble peaceably.
That was expressed with eloquence as well in Pittsburgh this week, in vigils across the city.
Of all the poignant and potent messages this one, expressed at one of those vigils by another man of the cloth, the Rev. Glenn Grayson, pastor of the Wesley Center AME Zion Church, seemed to speak to the moment with unusual power:
“A tragedy for Squirrel Hill is a tragedy for the Hill,” he said of the historically black Hill District. “It’s a tragedy for the whole city.”
Mr. Grayson spoke for Pittsburgh, a member of the clergy speaking the power of truth, and faith and hope, in a secular age.
“The right to believe what one sees as the truth regardless of what governments might decree is the most basic of all rights,” Mr. Tribe said. “Kill it, and all that matters is lost.”
Here in Pittsburgh there were moments in the past week when we — on the streets, in our pews, in our homes, without doubt in our newsroom — felt all was lost. Instead we have found a great truth that our Founders, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps with great foresight, gave to us, almost surely their greatest gift, and, we must hope, an enduring one.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette.