A Republican and a Democratic from the U.S. House of Representatives spoke back-to-back Wednesday at an religious freedom summit and separately raised alarms about the rise of anti-semitism in the United States and around the world.
Americans have been fighting genocide since the Holocaust, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson said at the fourth annual IRF Summit at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C.
“Sadly, the same anti-semitism that led to the Holocaust is now being spread through new tools and is once again rearing its ugly head,” said Johnson, a Louisiana Republican who has endorsed Donald Trump in this year’s presidential race.
“Since Hamas slaughtered thousands of Israeli citizens on Oct. 7, we’ve seen a frightening and seemingly coordinated rise of anti-semitism, including here on our own shores,” Johnson said. “Now is the time, just a few days after National Holocaust Remembrance Day, to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters and recommit to the promise we made decades ago: Never again.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, who is Jewish, followed Johnson on the stage and praised President Joe Biden’s work on religious freedom.
She also said threats to religious freedom are always lurking and that the resurgence of anti-semitism is horrifying.
“Amid a 360% increase in already record-high incidents, I’ve spoken to college students who share that they are afraid to wear a kippah or post a mezuzah on their door,” Wasserman Schultz said.
The comments by the two members of Congress followed a condemnation of antisemitism delivered at the summit the day before by former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
“The time has come for people around the world to speak with one voice and say there is no tolerance for antisemitism in any form in any nation on earth,” said Pence, who visited Israel in early January to review the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.
Fighting antisemitism wasn’t the only issue that unified Johnson and Wasserman Schultz on Wednesday.
Freedom of belief also unites political opponents
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Johnson said. “We should all be united on this. It’s who we are as Americans. ... We gather at this summit under one banner saying that religious freedom truly is for all the people. We declare the universal, self-evident truth that our inalienable rights, especially the right to religious freedom, come from God and not the government.”
Wasserman Schultz said, “Even as our government mobilizes on a bipartisan basis to counter antisemitism, those who live in fear of discrimination can never be truly free to express their faith and heritage.”
Johnson, a First Amendment lawyer, said government doesn’t have the authority or capacity to judge or transform the soul.
“Anytime it tries to take that authority, it attempts to do what only God can and it moves beyond its sphere of jurisdiction and it becomes tyrannical. When religious freedom is taken away from a people, political freedom soon follows. We know that that is the lesson of history.”
Johnson said the most repressive regimes often have the least to offer their citizens in terms of economic prosperity and social mobility.
“Economic prosperity grows when the people are allowed to follow their faith,” Johnson said. “Freedom flourishes where freedom is allowed. At this moment, the U.S. has an opportunity and an obligation to prevent genocide and punish those who commit it.”
The societal cost of denying freedom of religion
Wasserman Schultz said there is an opportunity cost for societies who deny free expression and thought or fail to act when threats to faith arise.
“They lose out, we all lose out, on the contributions that religious minorities and other persecuted groups would make if they had the liberty to live out their values, to attack life with the passion and drive that can only manifest in a free and open environment,” she said. “Imagine how rich and healthy our world could be if hundreds of millions of victims of persecution had the ability to live their lives.”
She called for concrete action in the face of depictions at the IRF Summit of “the horrific human and social costs of religious repression around the world.” She said 80% of the world’s population live in countries where their ability to practice or express their faith is restricted.
“In my time in Congress, I’ve seen immense progress in our government’s efforts to hold repressive regimes accountable and provide justice for the downtrodden, especially under President Joe Biden’s leadership,” she said.
She said the United States rightfully places religious freedom at the center of its human rights policy and that she, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, has “prioritized support for robust funding for U.S. and international efforts to promote the freedom to believe — or not to believe — and to combat the persecution of religious minorities.”
Wasserman Schultz also called for separation of church and state, which she described as avoiding the imposition of one’s beliefs on others or justifying oppression or prejudice because of the beliefs or practices of religious minorities or LGBTQ individuals.
“Religion must not be used as a cudgel to discriminate against others,” she said.
She asked for the IRF Summit’s help to advance the cause of international religious freedom and acceptance of others.
“After all,” she said, “refusing to back down from challenges that seem insurmountable is the ultimate expression of faith.”