The Bells of Religious Liberty

Monday, January 16, is Martin Luther King Day.  It’s also National Religious Freedom Day, first proclaimed by President H.W. Bush in 1993.  President Obama’s proclamation of 2010 reads, “On this day, we commemorate an early realization of our Nation’s founding ideals: Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom.”

It guaranteed Virginians the right to practice the religion of their choice and it separated church and state.  Encyclopedia Virginia notes, “The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.”

Not long ago I watched a PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.  The program covers the development of religious liberty in our country from colonial times to the early 1800s.  The filmmakers remind us of an astounding fact: “A government without the interlocking authority of religion was utterly unprecedented in Western history and within a generation of its creation, it produced a vibrant religious culture still unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Religious freedom was a revolutionary idea.  And so it remains.

Some people accused President Obama of waging a war against religion, and curiously to me, many of these same folk supported the President-elect who during the campaign promised to enact a ban against Muslim entering the U.S.  Democrats have been accused of having a “religion problem” because not enough of them have it and those who do, don’t understand it the same way as some less-liberal believers.

This week, Breitbart.com posted an article with the rather sensational headline: Pew Report: Religion Plummeted in America During Obama Era.  The implication being that somehow this tragic trend is Obama’s doing.  Read the Pew report for yourself.

Here’s a tidbit of history from First Freedom:  “Somewhat surprisingly in America in the mid 18th century somewhere around 20 to 30 percent, at the most, of European American colonists had any kind of significant relationship with a Christian congregation.”  (Jon Butler, Yale University)

Only 20 to 30 percent.

Not only that, but some of those who came to these shores to escape religious persecution then went on to practice religious persecution.  Baptists and Presbyterians were favorite targets, and so were Catholics.   For instance, prior to the American Revolution, if you were Catholic you were forbidden by law from entering New York.

Religious bans and trends of dwindling interest are nothing new.  Our “religious problem” is context.  We are missing the context of history.  We’re largely illiterate about history.  It’s our political problem as well.

And we tend to forget, or accept, that religious liberty is not only freedom of religion, it’s also freedom from religion.  You don’t have to have a faith.  There’s no law that says you must believe… in anything.

I am not always tolerant toward certain religious beliefs.  I feel conflicted about how much respect I should show to the teachings of some religions.  Is there a line you cross over and become an abettor, an enabler, with teaching you feel are misguided?  I do not have to respect a religion’s teachings.  But I must respect the right for people to follow those teachings.

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

– John Adams, founding father, April 8, 1785

We could also begin by going back to our history.  Not just the fun stuff, like war.  I mean peering back beyond the popular images to see the forces and ideas that shaped the men who shaped America, and to read the words, planted like seeds beneath the slogans, which by themselves, out of context, are merely the echoes of the bells of liberty, and not their true ringing.

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Riding down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull

Religious persecution is widespread, warns the report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that I mentioned yesterday. In addition to violence, the Commission also found that in countries with little freedom of religion some people are fired from their jobs for religious reasons. Yesterday, I also brought up a study of some 20,000 Christian participants that showed a very strong correlation between religiosity and racism in the United States. I wrote about how I had concerns about the direction the conservative right was headed in, and that I was worried about the rise of religious persecution in the US.

What I did not know about yesterday was Shirley Sherrod.

Is this a case of religious persecution? You betcha. As I understand it, the whole thing started with a guy name Andrew Breitbart, a conservative hit-blogger, who also speaks frequently at Tea Party Movement protests around the country. To my mind, there is no duality between the conservative right’s political ideology and their religious ideology. They are one in the same.

It’s not my intention to condemn all Christians, but I have no problem with condemning anyone who, in my opinion, uses religion as a tool to promote and impose a particular world view, morality, or political agenda – and conservatives, especially neoconservatives are doing all three.

Michael Lind, who calls himself a “former neoconservative” says that for the conservative movement “Religion becomes what Plato called a noble lie.” This is a concept that Plato talked about in The Republic. A lie, a myth, a falsehood, and what makes it “noble” is that it’s promoted supposedly for the greater good. A variation on the ends justify the means.

What we have here is some religious idealogs distorting facts to smear those who they disagree with, in this case the NAACP and Shirely Sherrod. Now Sherrod may have some skeletons in her closet for all I know, but it appears that her major crime is being black, and I assume, a liberal. What’s even more shameful than the complete distortion of the woman’s heartfelt story of personal transformation, is the rush to judgment.

I wonder how long we are going to continue to give into fear, because that’s the other tactic.

Yesterday I mentioned Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi theologian. Niemoller underwent a transformation not unlike Sherrod’s. Not only did he at one time support Hitler and National Socialism, he had also been anti-Semitic. In 1956, he wrote:

I have never concealed the fact and said it before the court in 1938 that I came from an anti-Semitic past and tradition… I ask only that you look at my life historically and take it as history. I believe that from 1933 I truly represented the Lutheran-Christian outlook on the Jewish question — as I revealed before the court — but that I returned home after eight years’ imprisonment as a completely different person.

Niemoller was put on trial for activities against the State and received a seven month sentence. He ended up doing eight years, as he wrote.  He later became active in the German peace movement and campaigned for nuclear disarmament.

His story is being played out again, “They came for the Jews and I was not a Jew so I did not object.”

They came for Shirley Sherrod, in a different way, but they came all the same and they got her. Andrew Brietbart said this woman was a USDA official and she discriminated against this poor farmer, and she must go. He said its not about this woman, it’s about this organization that tolerates racist behavior within its ranks. The problem is that it was a lie, and there was nothing noble about it.

Andrew Brietbart, owner of many websites,  says, “My sites offer truth.” He says “Racism is used by the left and the Democratic Party to shut up opposition.” He says “I consider myself to be a Judeo-Christian. I fight on that side.”

Yes, Andrew Brietbart, ace journalist, is a just godly guy doin’ God’s work.

Bob Dylan, guitar player, says “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”

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