Gary Gambrell recently asked in a letter to The Times, “Since when have you heard big government will not tell us where, when or to whom we should or should not worship?”
In the hope of promoting understanding, I would like to respond by explaining why it is that I don’t believe progressives and conservatives need to be quarreling about religious freedom. Americans of all faiths share the same sacred foundation, a primary reason for our nation’s existence: our belief in separation of church and state.
We all have the right to practice our religious faiths without government interference or persecution. Yet in recent decades, many conservative Christians have begun to believe that they are victims of discrimination when, for example, the Lord’s Prayer is no longer spoken aloud at school-sponsored events or when the word “holiday” is substituted for “Christmas” in public discourse. I believe that their anger quite understandably stems from challenges to customs that had gone largely unchallenged for almost two centuries. We humans are creatures of habit. Even now, it’s easy to forget that not every American is Christian.
In the early years, most Americans did share the same Judeo-Christian faith foundation, and though people of the Jewish faith have always been an important part of our culture, they were a small minority. I believe most simply became accustomed to the public practice of Christianity, the majority religion, and chose not to rock the boat.
As our nation’s population became more diverse in the 20th century, Christians became a smaller majority. Atheists, agnostics and people of diverse faiths began to believe that their rights as Americans included living in a culture that does not function as though everyone is Christian. Some people began to see separation of church and state in ways that had not been considered before. In the courts and public discourse, citizens began asking: Doesn’t separation mean that events and facilities paid for by government money should not represent one religion over others?
It’s easy to see how a misunderstanding came about, but this is easily remedied by Jesus’ Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christians need only to think about the separation rule objectively and imagine themselves as followers of a different religion to see that fair is fair. Those seeking to enforce the rule need to pursue their goal with tact, timing and compassion.
I sincerely hope we can try to understand one another on this and other issues that divide us. Our country’s future depends upon it.