Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Freedom From Religion

My grandfather was the most religious man I have known well. He was a Deacon in the Episcopal Church, the son of an Episcopal minister who was an army chaplain in World War I. Like water running over dry land, though, the family piety was reduced to a trickle by the time it got to me. My mother took me to church and signed me up to be an acolyte, but faith never took hold in me. I liked the organ music and the hymns, but I just didn’t believe in God. Not even when I was wearing those acolyte’s robes and lighting candles.

St. James Church, window memorial to Rev. Philip Davidson
I didn’t say anything about it to anyone. Why would I? It was just my opinion, not any more provable than the other. Besides, the religion of my grandfather was, as far as I could see, mostly doing good. It comforted those in grief. It called parishioners to visit the sick and feed the poor. These are good works for our time in this life, whether or not you believe in the next.

It was hard to get my grandfather to tell you what to do. Even when I asked, he was frugal with his advice. And he was downright parsimonious with his judgment of others. He was a New Deal Democrat, the first to integrate a major university in the south, so it must have broken his heart when I organized a mock Republican convention at college. He never said anything about it, though. He talked to me about it as though it interested him as much as it did me. I didn’t even know he didn’t think much of Dick Nixon when Nixon visited the university. As a university president, my grandfather lived in a pluralistic world. He believed that contending ideas, both religious and secular, make us wiser.

I wonder what he would have thought about the way religious doctrine has come to dominate our political debate today. His god was a private god, not a dictator. A god that respected free will. I don’t think my grandfather would recognize that god today, at least not by looking at the actions of some modern true believers.

Consider the much publicized case of the sixteen-year-old girl in Rhode Island who objected to a prayer being displayed on large banner in her high school. She’s an atheist, and the prayer to “Our Heavenly Father” made her feel she didn’t belong. She thought the prayer, and the feeling of otherness it gave her, had no place in a public school. She sued to have the prayer taken down and a federal court agreed with her. Apparently, many of her neighbors did not. Certainly not the ones who threatened her life, causing the local police to  escort her to school for her safety. Not the state legislator from her hometown who, on a radio broadcast, called her “an evil little thing.”

Or listen to the campaign language of Rick Santorum, today’s darling of the not-Mitt conservative wing of the Republican party: “The American Left hates Christendom. They hate Western civilization.” “If we follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.” That road being, in Santorum’s estimation, the one that leads to the French Revolution, as in, “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution.”

Or consider the Catholic Bishops' stand on President Obama’s rule that Catholic hospitals and universities must offer health plans with contraception coverage to all employees. These are not churches; they are large institutions serving non-religious purposes and employing people of all faiths, or no faith. Even after the president modified the rule so that health insurance companies, not the Catholic institutions, would pay for the coverage, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said it was like letting Catholics have pornography as long as someone else paid for it. Health care as pornography. Who would have guessed?

This country was founded by people seeking freedom from religious persecution. Their wish to be able to worship as they pleased was enacted into the constitutional guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As a people we have held to that ideal. Anyone in this country can practice whatever religion they want without fear of intimidation by the state. They may not be so free from harassment by other religions, however. The constitution doesn’t speak to that. That courtesy is left to the people to work out among themselves.

Certainly government harassment of religion is worse than one religion’s harassment of another, or of agnosticism or atheism. But it is the rich diversity of views that have made this country interesting, perhaps what have made it great. We lose an important part of that, an important part, I would suggest, of our humanity, when we try to impose our religious beliefs on others.

Go to the church or temple of your choice, by all means. Pray to your god. But leave him or her there. Bring the values you learn in church to secular life, if you feel they will benefit others, but don’t try to impose them on others. You’re not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you; it will just cause strife. Were he still alive, my grandfather might say, “Practice what you preach, but don’t preach what you practice."

1 comment:

  1. >“Practice what you preach, but don’t preach what you practice."

    I can hear Papa's voice...