Byron’s letter was part of a 2017 project that had 100 American religion scholars each write one letter to the president, vice president and members of Congress for the administration’s first 100 days. The goal was to bring a vast range of scriptural wisdom and expertise to the issues of a bitter, difficult time — and to implore the country’s highest political leaders to pay attention.
The project came to be known as “American Values, Religious Voices," and now includes a 2,000-subscriber daily newsletter, a book, a website with letter-writers reading their missives on video and a performance in February that featured actors and musicians who brought the letters to life.
A new round of 350-word missives is now underway with the Biden administration: One letter every day for 100 days from religious experts including those in Hindu studies, biblical preaching, Christian ethics, Orthodox culture, Asian philosophy and Old Testament literature. They are being delivered to the inboxes of chiefs of staff and legislative directors across the country. (Each day, one is put in snail mail, too, for good measure.)
In 2017, they received just one reply from a staffer with then-Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) This year, so far the only interaction has been with U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), who participated in the Feb. 15 Presidents’ Day live performance animating the letters. The desire for a bigger response is part of the reason the project is back up and running again for the Biden Administration, along with occasional e-mails with the subject line: “Are you reading our letters?”
Last time, said campaign coordinator Rabbi Andrea Weiss, many religious leaders were alarmed by a president they saw as deeply in conflict with scriptural values. This time, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and deep division over the 2020 election, Weiss said, “I was like, ‘We need the letters again.’”
Writing to societal leaders in particular, Byron said, is essential because scripture is about accountability. It’s also about calls for repentance. “That’s why this is such an important project to me. It’s not just that Jesus [on Easter] rose from the dead. He got up so we, too, can live resurrected lives. We have a responsibility as people of faith. Not just for Christians or for believers, it’s for any human being, any citizen of this country has a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable,” she said.
Letter 73, dated April 2, is by Love Sechrest, a New Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. Calling leaders to sign voting rights legislation, even if it means overturning the filibuster, she cited the book of Ephesians as telling leaders to deal with societal division by both unifying and truth-telling.
“This means telling the truth that our multiracial democracy is a recent, beautiful, and fragile thing, held together by organizers from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and White communities,” she wrote to Biden, Vice President Harris and others. “Today, if we are to make our way back from hate crimes, an insurrection, and the politics of grievance, then reconciliation must go hand in hand with truth telling and unity-preserving structures. ... Proclaiming that strangers and aliens are welcome in the household of God, Ephesians insists that leaders must speak the truth in love because we are in the same boat together."
Weiss, who is provost and a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and lives in Philadelphia, said the idea for the letter campaign came the day after the 2016 election. In her classes she had been scheduled to teach the Exodus lesson an eye for an eye.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ I wanted to share the biblical texts, psalms and other things I was turning to for comfort, perspective, insight,” she said.
The campaign seems to have taken off for a few reasons. One is that many of the letter-writers were Trump critics, in part because of what they saw as his crass and phony use of religion. They loved that the effort celebrated — all in letters directed to the power elite — the call in all faith traditions to policies around welcoming the stranger, caring for the outcasts and the needy.
Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Northwest Washington said the letters, which he gets through a subscription, are a “daily touchstone about what my week can be.” In 2017, when he felt he was “in the wilderness, in a country I no longer recognized” as a religious progressive, he was soothed by religiously and ethnically disparate voices articulating similar ideas of American values. In 2021, he says, the project of building a multi-faith conversation continues.
“In the petty day-to-day, I believe in keeping a picture of a bigger vision of the country. [The Religious Voices project] does this. I think we need these kinds of things to regain our common Americanism.”
Homayra Ziad, director of the Islamic Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, one of the returning letter-drafters, is thinking about what she wants to write for her 2021 missive. Her 2017 letter was one of the most popular, according to Weiss, though Ziad now looks on it with mixed feelings. Her Letter 92, dated April 21 of that year, focused on the prophet Muhammad’s sense of humor, which she says is often played down in historic writings about him, and how Islam is saying that society needs leaders who show empathy, humanity, mercy and humor.
While she believes humor is a sacred value, Ziad sees in her letter the fear many Muslim Americans really felt with Trump’s election in 2016. “I chose to remain more light than normal because we were deathly scared.”
As a progressive, Ziad has a different posture towards the new administration and Congress as she considers what to write this time. But her thinking is no less urgent. She wants religious progressives to be seen and acknowledged more by leaders, to “express values that stand for liberation.” She wants academics to take religious values “out of the ivory tower” and apply them more to the communities where they live.
“We want to translate religious values in a way that anyone can understand,” she said.
Byron says she sees the letters more as a holy exercise, like Paul’s epistle in the Bible; they are meant for her audience or whomever reads them.
“To me that’s the important thing, the genre. I wrote this to be a witness.”