"I contemplate with sovereign 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."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802
Imagine this: living in a country where tyrannical religious leaders rule the day, not freely elected public officials, but self-appointed, supposedly God-anointed clergy. Disagree with them at all and you’ll quickly find yourself under surveillance or thrown in prison or tortured or maybe even put to death. The state is religion and religion is the state, no separation at all, a theocracy. In 2012 it might seem improbable that such a religious dystopia exists but it does and it is called Iran.
Imagine this: living in a country where you can practice any religious faith or no faith at all. A secular government, founded in law, enshrined in a Constitution, neither endorses nor opposes religious practice or the lack of religion for its citizens. You can go to temple or mosque or church or just say “no” to God and faith. The God choice is up to you. It is personal, private, and sovereign in this democracy. In 2012 it might seem amazing that such a religious utopia exists but it does and it is called the United States of America.
Yet you’d never know it by the alarmist tone and shrill cries from a small but vocal group of folks of faith, who lately have been telling anyone who will listen that religious liberty is under siege in the United States. That people of faith are being coerced by the power of the government to deny the basic tenets of their belief in God or worse, muzzled in their dissent.
This cultural firestorm erupted in response to the announcement by the federal government that all employers, including religious ones (save for local houses of worship), will be required to offer basic contraceptive health care benefits to employees as a part of the new national health care law. Two confessions: I wholly agree with that mandate, as a person of faith and citizen, as a matter of justice. But I also understand the view of my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who oppose this provision on religious grounds.
And so I say to them: fight it if you will: in the courts, in the streets, in the legislature. That’s what makes democracy great, competing voices mixing it up, slugging it out, and then trusting the ballot box to judge their vision for America. But to claim that religious liberty itself is at risk? Listen to the red hot rhetoric, especially from the politicians. A spokeswoman for Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he, “…stands with…all religious organizations in their strenuous objection to this liberty- and conscience-stifling regulation.” Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner: “[This is] an unambiguous attack on religious freedom.”
Come on, really? “An unambiguous attack upon religious freedom”? Last time I checked there were no army tanks parked outside of the church I serve as a clergy person, no soldiers blocking the way, no cease and desist orders barring the front door of any house of worship in America from opening. There was a police car in front of my church on Sunday but that was to make sure folks could cross the street safely.
The hottest of vitriol and faux faith based defensiveness comes from Presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He’s a nice guy, no doubt. Sincere in his deeply held faith, committed to serving his country. But to hear him talk you’d think folks of faith were being dragged into jail cells every time they tried to open their mouths and protest government policy. As Santorum said on the February 26th edition of the ABC News talk show “This Week”, "I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country...to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up."
Beyond Santorum’s gag response (maybe he needs some Pepto-Bismol for the campaign trail), I think his claim is specious, hyperbolic and flat out false. No one is denying the right of folks of faith to organize, protest, lobby or vote in the public square. No one is shredding religious liberty in America. I wonder if Santorum’s martyr-like claims are more about gaining votes in a tight race rather than reality. I worry that he thinks he’s running for Clergy In Chief and not Commander in Chief. I ask where’s the more substantive debate on the real issues facing America? You know…the national debt, the economy, the rise of China, the income gap between rich and poor.
Is religious liberty under attack in America? Nope. Not by a long shot. Last time I checked the religious and the non-religious alike in America are still able to speak up in the public square and argue their opinions on any and all issues: contraception, or abortion, or the death penalty or racism or poverty.
If one really wishes to see a place where freedom of religion is under attack go to Iran or China or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. There folks of faith are actually fighting for their lives. There faith is often about life or death. There people pray in the fear that at any moment a door could be kicked down and worshippers dragged away to jail cells. There folks have good reason to be afraid of their governments when it comes to religion.
But not here. Not in the United States. Let’s get serious.