What “American Values Religious Voices” Is All About
American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters. brought together a diverse group of scholars to write letters to President Trump, Vice President Pence, our elected officials in the House and Senate, and members of the Trump administration. These letters articulate core American values that are rooted or reflected in our various faith traditions.
These 100 scholars come from a range of religious backgrounds. Our scholars are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh, individuals who represent the full spectrum of each faith tradition. Our Christian scholars are Catholic, Evangelical, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Mormon, and Quaker. Our Jewish authors come from the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish communities. Our contributors are rabbis, ministers, a Buddhist nun and a Catholic Sister, ordained clergy and active laypeople in houses of worship nationwide.
These 100 scholars reflect the glorious diversity that defines and strengthens our nation. Our scholars approach this project from their individual perspectives as Americans, some as African Americans, Latinas and Latinos, Asians, Native American, people of color from around the world. Our contributors write from their unique sense of self, some as gay women and men, parents and grandparents, activists, immigrants, teachers, people trying in various ways to make a difference in the world.
These 100 scholars live “from sea to shining sea.” Our scholars hail from twenty-one states and the District of Columbia. Our contributors teach at sixty-eight different institutes of higher learning, from large universities, to small liberal arts colleges, to seminaries across the country. Other letter writers lead organizations like the Forum for Theological Exploration, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Interfaith Youth Core.
How “American Values Religious Voices” Came About
In the days following the election, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Associate Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, came up with the idea of scholars sending a letter a day to our newly elected officials for the first 100 days of the new presidential term.
Words and actions during and after the election seemed to call into question fundamental values that have long defined our nation. Our divided country greeted the election results with mixed emotions: disappointment and anxiety felt by some, contrasting with excitement and promise experienced by others. Either way, at this time of transition many people appeared to long for guidance, inspiration, and a reaffirmation of what it means to be an American.
Those observations sparked the idea that at this particular moment in our nation’s history, our elected officials and our fellow citizens might welcome the insights of scholars of religious texts and teachings, individuals with an important voice to contribute to our national discourse.
As the initial idea took shape, a vision of a diverse cadre of contributors gave the endeavor added relevancy and urgency. This nonpartisan project has brought together contributors of different religions, races, genders, ages, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and geography–precisely the type of diversity that makes us who we are as a nation.
A number of individuals played instrumental roles in turning “American Values Religious Voices” from an ambitious idea to a concrete reality.
Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Associate Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is Campaign Coordinator for American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters. She developed the idea for the campaign and assembled the team of people working hard to bring that idea to fruition. She oversaw the issuing of 180 invitations as part of the effort to assemble a diverse list of 100 letter writers. She developed the content for the website and is responsible for the editing and distribution of the letters. With the launch of the campaign, at a time when we most need these daily reminders of who we are as Americans and how we should act as a nation and as individuals, she is managing the social media and outreach efforts in order to make sure that the letters reach as many readers as possible.
Aaron Panken, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, responded enthusiastically and generously when first presented with the idea of sending the 100 letters, agreeing to provide the financial and logistical support needed to bring the project to life. American Values Religious Voices is funded by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Founder and Creative Director of Masters Group Design in Philadelphia, Lisa Weinberger eagerly replied, “Yes!” when Andrea asked her to help with the design elements of the project. More familiar with scripture than branding, little did Andrea know exactly what she was asking until Lisa threw herself into the project, pro bono, designing the visual assets, creating all of the social media platforms, overseeing the website, and making herself available to help at all hours of the day and night. This campaign would have remained words on paper without Lisa’s remarkable talent, creativity, energy, and hard work. Tremendous thanks go to Lisa’s entire creative team: Benjamin Brown, Vicki Gray-Wolfe, Matthew Muhlbaier and Jason Dyniewski. Heartfelt gratitude goes to Roni Lagin for his willingness to design and develop this website, and for the passion, ingenuity, and effort he generously invested in this project.
Read Lisa’s reflections on the project here.
To get this project off the ground, Andrea quickly assembled an Advisory Committee. The committee compiled a lengthy list of potential contributors, drafted an invitation, contacted colleagues, and provided guidance in various ways as American Values Religious Voices moved forward. Meet the Advisory Committee members:
- Mark S. Smith, Helena Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, is Andrea’s mentor and neighbor. His initial encouragement and subsequent assistance proved instrumental in jump-starting the project in a matter of days.
- Deirdre Good, Interim Associate Dean and Visiting Professor of New Testament at Drew Theological School, agreed to meet with Andrea at the November American Academy of Religion-Society of Biblical Religion meeting in San Antonio, just a week and a half after the election. She quickly embraced the project, brainstorming names of contributors, sending invitations, and offering sound advice as the campaign developed.
- Elsie R. Stern, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is an old friend of Andrea’s from the time they met at UAHC Camp Swig in tenth grade. A fellow Philadelphian, Elsie joined forces early on, reaching out to her contacts, asking perceptive questions, and providing valuable input along the way.
- Herbert R. Marbury, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University, responded warmly when Andrea introduced herself and told him about her idea at an African American Biblical Hermeneutics session at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting. He graciously agreed to to be part of the Advisory Committee, even while on leave for the semester, and reached out to a number of his colleagues.
- Hussein Rashid, Founder of islamicate L3C, replied promptly and positively to an unsolicited email, thus ensuring that the Advisory Committee models the diversity at the heart of this campaign. He played a crucial role in making sure the list of 100 scholars contains that desired diversity.
Hilly Haber, third year rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, enthusiastically agreed to work on this project as an intern, without knowing quite what that might entail. Hilly is helping manage the campaign’s social media presence and distribute the letters. Thalia Halpert Rodis, second year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in New York, asked to get involved after hearing about the campaign in class. She has provided helpful backup on social media and assistance with organizational outreach.
As soon as the Advisory Committee started emailing invitations on December 2, 2016, a number of scholars quickly responded. Tammi Schneider at Claremont Graduate University replied first, with gratitude and enthusiasm: “Thank you for organizing this and I am on board.” Many other contributors have echoed that sentiment. Shalom Holtz at Yeshiva University sent us our first letter. His discussion of biblical attitudes toward kingship and the message those texts provide for a modern American president beautifully illustrated exactly what we thought this project could accomplish. Another early letter writer, John Kutsko, Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, expressed his gratitude in a way that articulates why this campaign is important: “Thanks for leading this initiative. We are culpable as scholars if we don’t build bridges to civil spaces and local communities. Even those, especially those, we don’t approve of…No meaningful dialogue or positive results comes from sniping across a divide.”
A number of scholars provided names and contact information so we could continue to expand our reach and put together a diverse group of contributors. Special thanks go to Kecia Ali, Eric Barreto, Teresa Delgado, Nancy Fuchs Kramer, J.B. Haws, Karina Martin Hogan, Paul Myhre, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and Homayra Ziad for their efforts in this regard.
Scholars regularly receive requests to contribute to worthwhile projects. Many times, we decline those invitations because we are overcommitted and simply do not have enough hours in a day. So to the 100 letter writers who took the time to say “yes” and the time to write powerfully and passionately about the issues that animate you and the texts that inspire you: thank you. You have helped turn an ambitious idea into a concrete reality, one that we hope will guide as all as we begin a new chapter in the evolving American story.