Monday, February 8, 2016

Freedom of Religion: For the Many, the Few, For EVERYONE!

“Religious freedom opens a door for Americans that is closed to too many others around the world. But whether we walk through that door, and what we do with our lives after we do, is up to us.”      --Mitt Romney, 
2012 candidate for President, Mormon

This past Sunday the folks in the church I serve gathered for our yearly Annual Meeting, where we met in prayer, adopted a budget, elected officers and discussed hopes for the next twelve months. Folks in our church have been doing this since 1685, for 331 years! Since 1789, protected by the Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of religious expression, we’ve practiced our faith in full freedom. No government can tell us how to worship or who to worship. No secular authority decides whom we pick for leaders or the doctrine we teach or the faith we preach.

We are free. Free. As Americans. Like all Americans. To embrace our idea of God.          

When we chose to have the same pastor lead us for sixty seven years (!), from 1838 to 1905, that was our business alone. When in the 1920’s we called a female pastor, at a time when such a choice was radical, that was our right as well. We do have to follow some basic laws.  The health inspector makes sure our kitchen is safe and clean.  Our elevator is licensed for operation. But these are exceptions. Overwhelmingly, we alone run our own affairs, raise our own funds, pick our own leaders and worship our God, as we see fit.  It’s that way for us.  It’s supposed to be that way for every American citizen too.

So as a person of faith I get very nervous when my fellow folks of faith or candidates for office, suggest that perhaps freedom of religion is for some groups but not all groups, some faiths but not all faiths, some religions but not every religion.  In a December 2015 poll, the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research asked a group of Americans about religious liberty. As one newspaper article reported, “Eighty-two percent said religious liberty protections were important for Christians, compared with 61 percent who said the same for Muslims…seven in 10 said preserving Jews’ religious freedom was important, while 67 percent said so of Mormons.”  The sobering take away? “Americans strongly back protecting religious freedoms – but more so for Christians than for Muslims” and I’d also add Jews and Mormons too.

What?! So protect the Christians but neglect the legal rights of those who follow Islam, or worship at a Jewish temple or call themselves Mormon. Hurray for Jesus but not so much for Mohammed or Moses or Joseph Smith.  Religious liberty for some, not for all?!  I don’t think that’s how the Constitution works.  My freedom of religion is inexorably tied to your religious freedom, regardless of whether or not we share the same faith.  A threat to the liberty of the minority is always a threat to the liberty of the majority.  In the words of President Barack Obama, who recently became only the second United States President to visit a mosque, “…as Americans, we have to stay true to our core values, and that includes freedom of religion for all faiths.”    

But then just hours later, one current Presidential candidate said of Obama’s visit: it “hurt our country badly…pitting people against each other.” Someone should remind him that the first President to visit a mosque was President George Bush, on September 17th, 2001, six days after the worst terrorist attack in our history.  Then Bush courageously said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America; they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior. This is a great country….because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.” You preach it George! 

My prayer as a citizen and person of faith is for just one hope, one truth, one ideal. That no matter what the constitutionally guaranteed right or freedom, be it religion, speech, assembly or the vote: either we all enjoy it or no one is finally free. Rights are universal not particular. Rights protect the minority from the oppression and tyranny of the majority. Rights hold fast and stand strong even as the fickle winds of popular opinion blow, like so much hot air. Rights are both individual and communal, founded in the rule of law, for the one and for the many.  Rights are non-negotiable for the citizenry. 

So today I thank God that I still live in a country where people of faith, all faiths, no faith, are free. Free. Free to choose, if they so desire, to pray and worship and practice faith and embrace their God and their tradition, and to live in true freedom.


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