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Sr. Contributor

 Religious freedom is a celebrated American long as you’re praying to Jesus.

Freedom of Worship is the second painting in Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series. It conveys the constitutional right to religious freedom by referencing multiple religions and was published in the Saturday Evening Post accompanied by an essay by historian and philosopher Will Durant. It depicts multiple people in prayer, labeled with the phrase “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.” This phrase is sourced from the founder of the Mormon church Joseph Smith’s Thirteen Articles of Faith. He paints a woman praying with her hands folded in prayer with rosary beads, a reference to Catholicism, and a man stroking his chin as a symbol of agnosticism. 

Though religious freedom is a lynchpin in democratic American ideals, in 1943, religious tolerance was not the reality. At the time, Anti-Semitism was on the rise in the US and throughout the world. Though the Roosevelt administration expressed concern over the Jews in Nazi Germany, the US consistently denied asylum to Jewish refugees seeking freedom and safety. Though the painting is meant to exemplify the First Amendment guarantee to free exercise of religion, it contradicts the message it extols by only portraying religious diversity through the narrow range of Christianity. The image Rockwell paints articulates the subtext of the American vernacular that contained a narrow vision of America, which ironically contained little freedoms for those who strayed outside the idealized white, small-town American lifestyle.

Rockwell lived in Arlington, Vermont when he created these paintings, a town whose demographics were overwhelmingly working-class and white. The models he used were his neighbors. There were no African-Americans or Asians and only eight percent were foreign-born. This was the same America that Rockwell fashioned in his paintings. The woman representing Catholicism was Rose Hoyt, an Episcopalian who was asked by Rockwell “Would you be Catholic today?” when posing. The only semblance of an America that departed from Norm’s norm is in the form of a kufi, tucked away in the bottom right corner and modeled by Rockwell’s neighbor Walter Squire, and an African-American woman furtively placed in the back of the top left. This was also probably due to the demographics of the readership of the Post, which did not feature Black people prominently in their pages.

Similarly, Durant’s accompanying essay with the same name contains the same tone, praising the success of religious diversity in Christian America due to the separation of church and state. It cautions against two extremes–implementation of religion by the state through the belief of the divinity of the Japanese imperial family and complete secularization that denounces Christianity, which he argues is the cause for the ruin of Italy, France, and Germany. He writes, “but now suddenly, through some paranoiac mania of racial superiority, or some obscene sadism of political strategy, persecution is renewed, and men are commanded to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto Caesar the things that are God’s” ironically referencing Matthew 22:21 as the reason for the separation of church and state.

Though there are many contradictions in the ideology behind Rockwell’s paintings, their images have persisted as visual representations of American values. In 2018, Freedom of Worship was recreated in photographic form on the cover of TIME Magazine with a cast to better reflect the religious diversity of the American people. These pictures were part of the For Freedoms project, founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, which reinterprets Rockwell’s paintings into more inclusive images of America. Participants have included actress Rosario Dawson, Japanese-American filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura who was placed in an internment camp as a child, Native Americans, trans people, immigrants, etc. to show the many meanings of the term “American.” In 1943, TIME originally described Rockwell’s work as “a loving image of what a great people likes to imagine itself to be” and by revisiting and reimagining Rockwell’s iconic images, For Freedoms re-envisions the FDR’s four freedoms that Rockwell depicts.



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Here is what Wikipedia says about Freedom of Worship (painting)

Freedom of Worship or Freedom to Worship is the second of the Four Freedoms oil paintings produced by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The series was based on the goals known as the Four Freedoms enunciated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1933 to 1945, in his State of the Union Address delivered on January 6, 1941. Rockwell considered this painting and Freedom of Speech the most successful of the series. Freedom of Worship was published in the February 27, 1943, issue of The Saturday Evening Post alongside an essay by philosopher Will Durant.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Freedom of Worship (painting)

Comments (2)

Lexi K

This picture is powerful. It shows many people that appear to be different and is implied they may not all be worshipping the same thing. Even though we all have different beliefs we are united in the fact that we have the freedom to believe and worship whatever we want. That is special and sometimes it can be easy to forget that around the world, it is different for other people and they do not have that option.


I love this because it represents the freedom we have to worship.