Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Religion and Politics: A Combustible Concoction

This piece also appears on Huffington Post Religion.

In the 80s, I remember my preacher at the time warning the congregation of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her attempt to get all references to God removed from public schools. I remember the word atheist being bandied about, as in “Madalyn Murray O’Hair is an atheist, pass it on.” What that told me was she didn’t believe in God, and not believing in God was a ticket straight to Hell. I remember us as a congregation praying she wouldn’t succeed in her quest. I was a child: naive about compromise, unquestioning the reasons, simply following along. That makes sense to me even as I think about it now. The pastor of the church is the Shepard and the congregation is the flock of sheep. We listened to our leader, and did what he said. People still do it to this day.  

I’m not suggesting that I agree with what Ms. O’Hair wanted. My normal is saying, “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and seeing “In God We Trust” on my money. That’s because I believe in God; the Christian God. What I am suggesting is that no one should be made to pray to or believe in a deity that is different from their actual beliefs. This creates a sticky situation in our politically correct times of trying to please everyone. We’ll never be able to do that. 

America is a country founded on freedom. That includes religious freedom--freedom of religion and freedom from religion. That means we all have the right to believe or not believe if we so choose. Why then is the line separating Church and State increasingly blurred? When I read of the proposed bill to create a state religion in North Carolina I was momentarily speechless. But only momentarily. The idea of declaring a state or national religion has been churning in my brain almost every day since.

The reason for the drafting of that bill was to address a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in North Carolina’s Rowan County. The lawsuit was filed against the county commission to attempt to block the commission from starting its meetings with a Christian prayer. The key word here is Christian. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but what if you serve on the commission and you’re Muslim, Jewish, or Atheist? You don’t believe in the Christian God? Should you be subjected to that prayer? It’s an honest question. Should a verbal prayer be removed from the beginning of the meeting, perhaps replaced with a moment of silent prayer? Should the prayer be removed altogether? What if that prayer made those non Christians on the commission uncomfortable? Does that matter to anyone?

The bill was killed in the North Carolina House of Representatives. That’s good news for a country with such a diverse religious canvas. One religion should never be chosen as superior above all others.

The Establishment Clause followed by the Free Exercise Clause that appear in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” 

Believing in God is a personal choice. One should be able to display it or not. Much the same as there are people who don’t feel comfortable with public displays of affection, there are people who don’t feel comfortable participating in public displays of religious beliefs. 

Everyone knows that religion and politics are two topics to avoid discussing at a dinner party. If you want to clear the room, ask a question involving one of them. You’ll either have a heated discussion on your hands followed by storm-outs or you’ll have a quiet exodus of those who suddenly have somewhere else to be. Either way, you’ll be left to clear the half empty wine glasses to the kitchen. 

Just because people don’t want to talk about it doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God or a higher power. It means that it is a personal choice and something they honor in private. And before you start asking how I can profess to believe in God and not stand behind a national religion I’ll tell you: I’m trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if I didn’t follow the beliefs of the proposed religion of Christianity. I’m trying to live in the gray area instead of the black and white of “my way or the highway.” Some days I feel this country is so divided that we’ve forgotten compromise is more than a word. It’s an action. I’m guilty of it myself.

As a gay man who finds many organized religions less than welcoming to my community, I question what a national religion would change in our country; how a national religion would redefine the already thinning line separating Church and State. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I also know that those who oppose my views may criticize me as too liberal or too far left; possibly even morally bankrupt because I’m a gay man. To each his own. My relationship with God is mine and as Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

We have the privilege of choice here in America. We don’t have to follow any one dogma or doctrine, and politics has no business in the middle of it.