This is the second of Amy Weisberg’s four essays inspired by Norman Rockwell’s 1943 quartet of paintings “the Four Freedoms.”
In Norman Rockwell’s painting depicting the freedom of worship, he fills the canvas with people in prayer. He not only shows their faces in solemn prayer, but also their hands, most pressed together, one holding a rosary. By using a monochromatic palette, the artist conveys the sameness of the people in the painting, creating a feeling of unity among the people of different faiths, painted in profile, all facing the same direction as if collectively looking towards their belief in a higher power.
The words, “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience,” seen at the top of the painting, set this painting apart from the other three in the series, which do not have any printed statement. These words emphasize the importance of the individual right to observe a religion based on one’s own beliefs, learned, adopted from our families, or developed as we become educated and study various religions, or through our own life experience.
We can teach our children to honor this freedom, on which our country was founded, by teaching the respect of an individual’s right to choose his/her own belief. One of the best ways to teach children and to explain freedom of religion to them is to help children understand the different beliefs celebrated in our own neighborhoods, in our country, and around the world. We can help children see the commonality religions share and the similarity of the way people worship.
Prior to entering school, children often recognize only the faith of their families. The holidays celebrated have a special place in the calendar year and the underlying meaning of the religious beliefs is explained by parents or perhaps at church, temple, or religious school. Children generally do not question their own religion and believe that it is “just the way it is.” Once they enter school, children begin to realize that people celebrate in a variety of ways and they may begin to have questions. In school, we often talk about the various religions that celebrate holidays in December.
Teachers (other than religious school teachers) are not meant to teach religion, but we are able to provide a multicultural approach to develop an understanding that people have many ways to worship. We can help answer questions commonly brought up during childhood, and often books are a great source of understandable information written in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Reading stories that provide information about how and why we celebrate holidays, worship and hold our beliefs, is one of the best ways to not only establish an understanding of our own rituals, but a way to garner an appreciation of the rituals of others.
As children get older, they begin to notice the differences as their friends attend religious school, participate in choirs at their church or temple, or attend retreats with their places of worship. Craft projects can help children appreciate the variety of holidays celebrated and sometimes give children a chance to vicariously participate in the cultural traditions of others. Encouraging acceptance in the differences of others allows children to feel comfort in their own beliefs.
As we observe our community, our country, and the world, we can strive to create a space where all can feel safe and valued by modeling the compassion and understanding we desire for ourselves.
Children are impressionable and learn through our teaching, their experience, and the values demonstrated by leaders in our community and religious leaders. To uphold the values stated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s January 6, 1941 speech—in which he ended each Freedom with the phrase, “…everywhere in the world.”—and the values upon which our country was founded, we can focus on and teach our children the qualities we admire: love, empathy, compassion, understanding, tolerance, and respect.
Note: For adults and children over 12, The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, founded to examine racism and prejudice, with a focus on the Holocaust, offers permanent and special exhibits, special performances and educational opportunities that highlight the importance of freedom of religion and religious tolerance. www.museumoftolerance.com.