Teaching Freedom of Faith to a New Generation
I cover the upcoming Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, and its mission to revive appreciation for religious liberty.
"Local Projects, a design studio that worked on the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, is designing exhibits for the center. Founder Jake Barton says the goal of many interactions will be to help visitors see “how their values connect them to other Americans present and past.”
Working on the project, he says, gave him a new perspective on his own religious background. He was raised as a Quaker, but only in the process of designing the FLDC did he come to appreciate how radical William Penn’s project in Pennsylvania was. This was a man, he points out, who was several times imprisoned in the Tower of London for his Quaker beliefs, and then founded the city of Philadelphia on an ideal of religious freedom that was at that time entirely utopian. “And yet it worked!” says Barton.
In stretches of the 1700s, for instance, Philadelphia was the only place in the entire British empire that a Catholic Mass could be celebrated openly. The city attracted many other persecuted religious minorities as well, from Huguenots to Amish to Jews. William Penn saw Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment.”
But the toleration that attracted diverse groups to Philadelphia didn’t always mean there was interdenominational harmony. The nativist Know-Nothing riots of 1844 saw anti-Catholic mobs burn down two historic churches. The riots were sparked by spurious rumors that Catholics were attempting to remove the Bible from public schools. From ABS’s window, Alan Crippen pointed out the rebuilt St. Augustine’s that had risen from the ashes of that dark chapter in the city’s history.
An immersive theater at the FLDC will introduce center visitors to Philadelphia’s wide array of historic religious sites—including, right next door, Congregation Mikveh Israel, which dates to the 1740s and is called “the Synagogue of the American Revolution.” It will steer people to further adventures exploring these sites across the city. There is hope that a Faith and Liberty Discovery Trail will eventually connect many of those historic religious sites for pedestrians.
The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center won’t shy away from conflicts or thorny twists to the story of America and the Bible. The justice gallery, for example, will show how both sides in the debate over slavery tried to marshal Scripture to support their cause. It will cover controversies over suffrage and immigration.
Yet the museum experience is designed to end on a note of unity."