Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Religious Tolerance

As I see some of the intolerance that is occurring between people of various religious communities in our country, and the world, I believe it is time for each of us to think about our tolerance level or lack thereof. I implore people of religious faith in particular to take an inventory of the way we relate to others who think differently than we do. Intolerance has become associated with many people and faith communities who want to force their religious ideas upon others. We hear people talk about amending the Constitution and inserting their religious ideas as part of the Constitution. We must remember that the Constitution is a secular document, not the Bible. Some people in the faith community forget that America is a democracy, and not a theocracy. This is important to remember.

I constantly hear the refrain "America is a Christian country." What is meant by this statement? I don't think this is what Thomas Jefferson or James Madison envisioned this picture of a Christian America. People have often appealed to the Founding Fathers of the United States as their source of inspiration when it comes to making an argument that we must keep America Christian. However, when Thomas Jefferson became the President of the United States a group of Baptist from Conneticut appealed to him to have a national day of fasting because of the rancor of the recent presidential campaign. His response is very telling:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes to none other for his faith for his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

Some people in some faith communities in the United States refer to America as a country founded on Christianity, but in reading Thomas Jefferson's response to the request of the Connecticut Baptist it seems to bring into question that ideology. Jefferson reminded his requesters that the American people asked that the legislature stay away from "establishing" or "prohibiting" in matters of religion. Furthermore, many people forget that Thomas Jefferson was not a believer in Christianity in the traditional sense of the word. Jefferson rejected the idea of the divinity of Jesus, and the miracles found in the Bible. He is not good Founding Father to look towards when it comes to arguing America is a "Christian country."

I often ask people who are intent on making the church and state inseparable, "Whose faith is going to govern the United States?", "What texts should we use, the Bible or the Koran or some other sacred texts?", "What prayers should be used in school?", "Who gets to be in charge of controlling the religious direction of the each classroom, state, etc?" I believe it is difficult for some who are Christians to remain objective, and recognize that everyone is not a Christian in the same sense they are, or that everyone is not Christian. I believe people have ample opportunity to share their religious ideas with others in the marketplace of ideas that does not require them to encroach upon this valuable First Amendment right of separation of church and state. It is important that people not try to turn back the hands of time when there was prayer and Bible readings in school, and America had many serious problems that denied many of its citizens basic human and equal rights. Prayer and Bible readings alone didn't make America a better place, it just worked to make many in the Christian community ignore many of the real problems that churches could have solved. There were others in the religious community who understand that there is more to being a Christian than reading the Bible and praying - much more. So, I challenge those of religious faith and "Christian values" to go about solving the problems in America and abroad, and to quit focusing on talking about how far America has fallen, and the need to legislate a morality in America that never existed. If we do that, I believe that we will have a greater tolerance for others because we will recognize each other as brothers and sisters, rather than strangers.

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