Growing up, I quite often heard that there are two things one should never discuss: religion and politics. Well, obviously I, like most others, have broken that taboo when it comes to politics! However, I do try to stay far away from discussions about religion. I view religion as a very personal issue and think it is generally best if everyone keeps their religious views to themselves. There are only about three people in my life who even know my religious views, and that is how I intend to keep it. However, today I feel compelled to tackle, respectfully, the subject of religion in the U.S. I shall probably regret this, but ….
There are several things that set the U.S. apart from most other nations:
- In the 18th century, after winning our independence from England, we led the fight for democracy around the globe and our Constitution was the first of its kind.
- We are a nation of immigrants: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
- The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, religion and press: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Certainly there are many more things that set us apart from other nations, some of which are achievements of which to be proud, others not so much, but they are not necessarily relevant to my topic today.
How do you define religious freedom? I define it as the right of people of every religion to observe the rites and rituals of their faith, including secularists and those of no religion, without persecution or condemnation. That is just my definition, and I am pretty sure that everyone has a slightly different one, but it would seem that today, many define religious freedom as “the right of ‘Christians’ to dictate the laws and practices of all people in the nation.” Believe it or not, this conflict is not new. It goes back to the very first settlers in what would later become the U.S.
The very first people to come here seeking religious freedom were actually the French Huguenots, back in 1564. Long story short, they were wiped out by the Spaniards (Catholics) because “they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.” Both the Spaniards and the French were Christians, yet their encounter ended in a bloodbath of religious intolerance.
During the 1600s, Pilgrims and Puritans came to our shores seeking relief from religious persecution. The story we are so fond of telling and hearing is that our nation thus became a welcoming melting pot where everyone was free to practice his or her faith, but the reality is that within the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious or political dissent was absolutely not tolerated and punishable by anything from banishment from the colony up to and including hanging. Ultimately it led to one people’s quest for freedom resulting in the conquest and enslavement of another. (Philbrick, Mayflower, 2006)
Throughout the history of the nation there have been examples of blatant religious intolerance too numerous for this short article, but if you are interested, the Smithsonian has an excellent article you may want to read: America’s True History of Religious Tolerance. Which brings us to the 21st century. I find it interesting that the very same people who strenuously object to any gun regulation, decrying that their 2nd Amendment rights are being violated, see no problem with denying 1st Amendment rights to fully one-third of the population.
We have, as defined by the Constitution itself, a secular government. There is good reason for this, yet many would claim that ours is a ‘Christian nation’, whatever that means. Our government does not require that a person be of any specific faith, nor of any faith at all, in order to run for any elected office. Article VI of the Constitution states, in part, that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Our laws are not intended to favour any one religion over another, nor to exclude or condemn those who choose no religion.
Just as there has always been religious intolerance and just as there have been acts of violence committed in the name of one religion or another in the past, we are seeing what seems a resurgence of religious intolerance in recent years. I am not sure if there is actually less tolerance between religions today, or if people are just speaking louder and being noticed more than in the past. I do know that this is the first time I recall lawmakers forgetting their responsibility to not favor any one religion over others and threatening to pass laws against a specific religion. If those who would do so are successful in passing laws to ban people of the Muslim faith from our nation, then all semblance of religious freedom goes out the window and the Constitution, the foundation of our government, is null and void.
Beliefs and religion should not define the person. Actions should define the person. We must not judge people because they are Christians or Muslims or Jews, but judge them by their actions. I am far more concerned with whether a person is honest, kind, fair, and empathetic than whether he is Christian, Muslim, or atheist. In fact, I prefer not to even know or discuss a person’s religious beliefs, as it is not my business, nor are my beliefs his business.
A recent study by PEW Research Center ranks countries by religious freedom, with an eye to both government policies and what private religious groups and organizations do in the public sphere. The U.S. ranks only 9th, saying “The United States has a 3.0 ranking on the scale, even though the country’s constitution calls for the freedom to practice religion. The country has seen some litigation over religious freedom issues in recent years.” Interestingly, we are out-ranked by Brazil (#1), South Africa, Philippines, Japan, D.R. Congo, U.K., Italy, and South Korea.
We cannot continue to say we are a nation of religious freedom if that freedom applies only to any one group, or if it excludes even a single group. I do not think there is a single “right” ideology that supersedes all others. While we have never truly been a shining example of religious freedom, I think it is time we adopt an attitude of “live and let live” in this nation before we become a nation of religious persecution.