The letters, one to be delivered to national officeholders on each of the first 100 days of President Trump’s administration, are meant to be a lamp unto the feet of those who govern a divided nation.
Written by a spiritually disparate group of 100 scholars, the letters explore values such as the common good, inalienable rights, and justice as expressed in a Hindu holy book; in a biblical passage; in a question at the heart of Islam; in the jagged sculpture thought to be of John the Baptist standing on the National Mall in Washington.
Each a succinct 350 words, the missives are part of "American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters,” a nonpartisan campaign to remind the nation’s leaders that the country's undergirding principles — many rooted in and reflective of religious tradition — can span the most formidable chasm.
“There are a number of people in our new government who approach their work with a strong religious sensibility, and we thought this was an opportunity to remind them — and a wider audience — about what those traditions have to say about key issues,” said Andrea Weiss of Bala Cynwyd, a leader of the project and an associate professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
The organizers enlisted scholars from a wide sweep of religious traditions — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist — to author letters that are being sent daily to about 1,000 national officeholders and their staffs, including Trump, Vice President Pence, cabinet members, and Congress. The first letters went out on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
For the most part, the correspondence is being distributed via email, although the president and vice president also receive letters by mail each day. The writers explore subjects that include the American Dream, wisdom, liberty, dignity, compromise, and the Good Samaritan, and relate them to issues such as the environment, immigration, and poverty. So far, 21 letters have been sent.
The project, Weiss said, grew out of a feeling of unease that gripped her during the campaign and continued after Nov. 8. She was troubled by the vituperative nature of the election season and felt compelled to do something.
Two days after the election, Weiss scrapped her lesson plan and instead explored biblical texts that could offer guidance for tumultuous times. The exercise got her to wondering what other scholars might have to say about the intersection of faith and American values.
Soon, Weiss was sitting at a dining room table brainstorming with colleague Elsie Stern, vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, and a friend, Lisa Weinberger, founder and creative director of Masters Group Design, a branding and communications firm that works mostly with nonprofits. The three women fleshed out the idea, and Weinberger volunteered to create the visual and online design of what would become a red-white-and-blue campaign.
Weiss called in Mark S. Smith, also of Bala Cynwyd, a professor of Old Testament literature and exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, and they developed a steering committee to invite other scholars to participate.
The group worked hard to ensure that the letters would come from a diverse group, so the campaign could not be easily dismissed as the work of liberal professors and elites who disagree with Trump’s policies. Letters come from young and old, Northern and Southern, clergy and lay people, conservatives and liberals, and from institutions that are traditional and progressive, organizers say.
Schools represented include Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.; Howard University in Washington; Yeshiva University in New York City; and Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. About 10 of the scholars teach at area schools, among them Haverford College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Ursinus College in Montgomery County.
Scholars chose their own topics. Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Bible Seminary, wrote about the Sermon on the Mount and “respecting the image of God in every person.” Weiss wrote about heeding the call of the prophet Micah to do justice, love mercy, and “walk humbly with your God.“
Zain Abdullah, associate professor of religion and society and Islamic studies at Temple University, has not completed his letter. He said he would approach it as a question in the tradition of Muhammad, who received Islam’s first revelation after asking, “What should I read?” With Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in mind, Abdullah will consider: What is the definition of greatness?
Organizers are unsure if the letters are being read by the intended recipients, whose staffs screen correspondence. The campaign has received about 100 email requests to unsubscribe.
But even if only a few read the letters, Weiss and her collaborators hope to start a conversation. Nearly 2,000 others have subscribed to receive the daily letters. As of Wednesday, the campaign had 367 followers on Twitter and 63 on Instagram, and nearly 600 likes on Facebook.
The letters are scheduled to end on April 29, but organizers are considering a future beyond the 100th day.
“I would love to see this project with every presidential election,” Stern said. “I think this one grew out of a sense of urgency and anxiety, but I think the idea that these incredibly wise religious traditions have a lot to say to folks who have just ascended to positions of enormous power isn’t specific to this moment.”