America: Land of the free, home of the respectful religious debate

Robert Morrison is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Post on October 3, 2013.

My friend Frank is a respected architect in our town. We regularly meet for lunch and then proceed to the local Blood Bank, where we race to donate our pint of goodwill. Frank is a devout Catholic brother. He fills me in on his parish news and, as well, on his recent pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico.

Recently, we were sharing stories of our fathers over lunch when a beautiful young woman, very fashionably dressed, stopped by our table on her way out of the Lebanese taverna. Almost with tears in her eyes, she thanked us for the way we were talking about our fathers. It was a tender moment we will both cherish.

Of course, as a firm Lutheran, I have my own theological perspectives to share with Frank. And we have our ancient rivalry to bring up - not the one between Catholics and Protestants - but the football contests between his University of Maryland Terrapins and myUniversity of Virginia Cavaliers. When I wrote a column once describing the Maryland flag as black and yellow, red and white, Frank nearly bit my head off. "That's black and gold," he rebuked me. Frank taught me to fear the Turtle.

Frank can talk most knowledgeably about architecture. And he even dismissed as unoriginal the U.Va. architecture of my hero, Thomas Jefferson. Fighting words. "What about the fact that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) named Jefferson's 'Academical Village' at U.Va. as the greatest achievement in two hundred years of American design in the bicentennial year of 1976?"

Unimpressed, Frank shot back: Have you seen what those AIA fellows were themselves building in 1976? Touché! Then, Frank introduced me to one of his favorite books on architecture, "Brunelleschi's Dome."

Filippo Brunelleschi was a Florentine goldsmith and metalworker of the early 15th century. He was commissioned to build a huge domed structure to complete the cathedral in his famous Italian city, the home of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi labored for decades inFlorence on his masterpiece as capomaestro, the head of the works.

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio book version of Ross King's non-fiction bestseller. And I appreciated the lesson Frank was teaching me: If you want real genius in architecture, look to the Renaissance greats, not to American amateurs who merely copied and adapted to our still-wilderness Western lands the styles of the Renaissance masters.

Filippo wanted his city's cathedral to impress the world. It did and it still does.

The church of Santa Maria del Fiore is rightly considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. It still stands, more than five hundred years after it was consecrated, as a beloved home of Christian worship.

Another lesson was impressed on me, somewhat painfully: All of Filippo's workmen were free men. They had long hours and dangerous working conditions, to be sure, but they were not slaves - as most of those who built Mr. Jefferson's beautiful structures were.

I can tell Frank, my "blood brother," that there is another kind of building - erecting a free and independent republic on a strong foundation of religious freedom. In that architectural effort, Thomas Jefferson was unexcelled.

Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence that was signed by some of the most learned men in America. And surely they were among the bravest. They knew they could be signing their own death warrants. As wise old Ben Franklin said: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

My friendship with Frank reminds me of the fact that Charles Carroll, a wealthy Catholic landholder from Annapolis, Maryland - Frank's and my town - signed that Declaration alongside Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman from New Jersey.

This is another stellar example of American exceptionalism. Nowhere else on earth in 1776 would you find two such men of different religions pledge to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. In a world wracked with religious violence, it's an American lesson worth sharing.