Rev. Nate Walker teaches “moral imagination” as an answer to religious liberty

By Emma Keddington

NEW YORK — America is filled to the brim with diversity. Diversity of ethnicity, race, origin and religion permeate the policies and topics that American citizens and lawmakers give weight and notice to.

Group meets with Rev. Nate Walker at the Paramount Building in Times Square. (Isaac Leonard).

Rev. Nate Walker, a Universalist Unitarian minister and First Amendment rights educator, specifically talked about religious liberty and the role it plays in America in a New York briefing on Tuesday, June 28, focusing on the history and present of religious liberty in the United States. 

Walker began with his self-created idea of “moral imagination,” which he described as the ability to look at the issue of religious liberties through another person’s eyes. 

“It is the ability to picture yourself fin the middle of a moral dilemma and see everyone’s point of view… it is a civic virtue we embody when we have empathy for someone with whom we disagree,” Walker said. 

Walker illustrated the importance of moral imagination by walking through the history of America’s foundational principles of religious liberties of which the nation was created, beginning with the colonizing age. 

History of Religious Liberties in America 

According to Walker, the original colony of Rhode Island was a leading force in the foundation of religious liberty in America, as it “guaranteed more religious liberties than had been previously conceived in Western Society.” 

Rhode Island’s leader, Roger Williams, emphasized the importance of religious freedom throughout his time as a colonial leader, stating that “God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.” 

This tenet of Williams’ leadership provided root for the idea of religious freedom that is known in America, the idea of separation of church and state. 

Walker explained how separation of church and state has played a vital part in the foundation of America as a unified country, influencing the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and even Thomas Jefferson’s first act as President of the United States, in which he offered a letter to the “Baptists of Danbury” that provided that the “legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof.” 

Religious separation has allowed many different religions to thrive within the U.S. along with religious diversity within large groups, Walker said. 

However, the U.S. has not always upheld the ideas of religious liberty and diversity that it describes in its Constitution. 

Walker explained how the assimilation processes of Indigeionous people in the late 1800s went against the ideas of religious liberty so fundamental  to the principles of the nation. 

This process, forwarded by President Ulysses S. Grant, included efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity, with schools designed to teach them “European dress, the English language and Christianity.” 

Similarly, religious liberties are always threatened whenever racial discrimination is put forth in the country through often racist policies, Walker said. 

Policies such as Ozawa v. United States and Korematsu v. United States enforced anti-Asian ideas that blocked their opportunities to live their truth freely as a U.S. citizen. Walker even cited the Mormon extermination effort led by Missouri Governor Boggs as an example of religious liberties being taken away in the nation. 

America is a nation of religious minorities, Walker said, however the continued demographic changes of religion in the U.S. is “accompanied by America’s profound illiteracy about religion and spirituality and how they operate in both people’s private lives and in the public square.”

Such has led to widespread misunderstanding and debate on what religious liberty means in today’s society. Reverend Walker explained how the lack of empathy for the “religious other and non religious,” mainly among Christians, had led to people misccharacterizing and stereotyping religious minorities including Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs, leading to anti-Semitic and anti-Islam tendencies for many Christians in America. 

Moral Imagination

Thus, Walker said, is the importance of practicing moral imagination in religious debate, discourse, and policy making. 

Moral imagination in its basic form, prescribed by Walker, involves exhibiting empathy for fellow human beings. 

“[Moral Imagination] is a civic virtue we embody when we have empathy for someone with whom we disagree,” Walker said. “Moral Imagination is a character strength that ignites personal and shared virtues to be reached through individual and communal discipline.” 

In essence, it is the civic and human responsibility to cultivate understanding across religious divides, Walker said, and is of the utmost importance that it is applied in situations of conflict and misunderstanding. 

Walker provided an example from his own life that illustrated the importance of moral imagination in real life scenarios. He described an occurrence where a self-prescribed “skinhead,” an anti-racist activist and a punk band member got into a heated conflict. 

Walker explained how he was able to facilitate “moral imagination” at this moment, by asking each of these parties to step into one another’s shoes, to try to understand the disagreement from the other side. 

This encounter ended in tears and embraces, Walker said, and illustrated to him just how powerful this empathy mechanism can be. 

“Be yourself, let go of the scripts and find a new dialogue,” Walker said, giving direction on how to apply moral imagination into the real world. “See people as human beings.” 

Overall, Walker said that moral imagination will allow professionals, citizens and fellow human beings to achieve a concept called “liberty squared,” which asks its adherents to follow the tenet “I am not free until you are free.” 

Only then can full religious liberty be achieved, Walker said, when all people are free to worship, not worship, or live as they choose. 

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