Peace be unto you, friends, this Night of Power.
I am very honored to be invited to be here tonight. A little over a year ago I was invited to address the first Iftar celebrated here at the Department of Defense. The fact that you would ask me back for a second time is a tremendous honor. I am very grateful. As I said last year, I am a Lutheran in my own religious background and not a Muslim, so I cannot fully appreciate how important this Night of Power is for all of you. But I can understand why this Night of Power is deeply important to you, because I am a religious person myself. I can understand how moving it is, in this season of dedication, that all of you have spent the entire day focusing on your relationship with God. There is nothing like fasting to bring that home, and we are near the breaking of the fast. So for you to invite me to be here this evening is a tremendous privilege.
We come together tonight as people of faith who also have assumed a larger responsibility of service to our country. I firmly believe these are reinforcing qualities. In thinking about what I would say to you tonight, I was drawn back to where we started as a country. Let me quote from the opening lines of the Constitution of the United States:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
There is not a word in that passage that is not grounded in the fundamental values of Muslims or, for that matter, Christians or Jews -- not a word. Every single ideal expressed and embodied in the fundamental document of the United States is rooted and grounded in our shared community of faith.
The Constitution outlines a vision of a just society that is at the core of the three traditions we share. That vision is not only about how we should behave as faithful individuals in relationship to God, but about how our society should be organized in relationship to God. The ideal outlined in the Constitution calls for systematic just treatment of all citizens; it calls for peace and order in our land; and it calls for a shared effort to defend our families against outside threats. It talks about a sharing of riches so that all people might be clothed, fed, and housed. It talks about a pervasive climate of due process that fairly balances the rights of individuals and the rights of the society. I believe that vision in our Constitution springs directly from our shared religious values. There is not a word in the Constitution for which a good Muslim would not fight.
America as a nation is committed to four great defining concepts: liberty, justice, equality, and opportunity. It has been and remains the most revolutionary country in history, precisely because it started with those simple principles of democracy. But while the vision of our ancestors was clear and simple, our nation’s path on this journey has not always been smooth. Millions of men and women over the last 220 years have put on the uniform of this country and gone off to fight, and too often to die, so that these principles might remain fresh. Too often those men and women fought wars for peace and freedom in faraway places, only to return home and confront injustice or be denied opportunity. That is not compatible with the true vision evinced in our Constitution.
Our quest as a country is to fight for justice and equality as well as liberty and freedom. The men and women who have volunteered to serve in our armed forces have done so, not just to bring peace to Bosnia, but to provide for religious freedom here in the United States. I heard the story about what it took to establish a mosque in the naval base in Norfolk, where Muslims had no place to worship until just a few years ago. Through those fights -- large and small -- our men and women are being faithful to the ideal expressed in our Constitution, recognizing the religious freedom and rights of our own soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. It is the same ideal expressed in the Holy Koran: "O mankind, I created you from a single pair and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other."
Let me conclude by reading a brief message that was delivered 52 years ago by a Navy chaplain, Roland Gittelsohn, when he dedicated the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. I am going to paraphrase it just slightly. He said:
Here lie officers and men of all colors, rich men and poor men together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews -- and I would add Muslims -- together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises another because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. Any among us, the living, who fail to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. ...Whoever lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be a minority, makes of their sacrifice an empty, hollow mockery. Thus do we consecrate ourselves—the living—to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren.
This is the vision that binds us together as believers and as soldiers. It is why I celebrate being with you at this Iftar and thank you all for being good Muslims and great committed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
Peace be unto you this Night of Power.