Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 106 – Freedom of Religion

The First Amendment to the US Constitution says in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof." There used to be two interpretations of this Amendment – one said that the government should maintain a strict separation from anything remotely religious and the other said that while it was OK for the government to relate to religion in various ways, it could not favor any particular religion or put any religion into official disfavor.


There has always been a strain of religious fundamentalism in this country, and there are those who believe that since the majority of people profess Christian faiths, America should be considered a "Christian Country," whatever that means. They erroneously cite the Founders, many of whom such as Jefferson were avowedly non- or anti-religious, and conveniently ignore those who were not Christians and who contributed to the founding as well. More importantly they ignore the Founders' intent in making the anti-establishment clause the leading part of the Bill of Rights.


Senator Harry Reid is a Mormon, and has while he does not wear his faith on his sleeve, he makes no secret of it either. Nevertheless, as Majority Leader of the US Senate and as one of the two Senators from a religiously diverse state, he takes the Constitution pretty seriously. Last Thursday Reid invited Rajan Zed, a Hindu Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Relations at a Hindu Temple in Reno to give the customary brief prayer that begins the Senate's business every day. This was a first for a Hindu clergyman, but not for a clergyman who is not Christian – Rabbis, Imams and even Native American Shamans have given the prayer from time to time.


Here's where it gets sticky: a fundamentalist Christian group, the Mississippi-based "American Family Association" urged its members to object to the prayer, and three protestors disrupted the invocation by shouting from the gallery. Here is what they objected to: "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the heavens. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds." Mr. Zed then closed with "Peace, peace, peace be unto all." He said all this in English, by the way, and for this apparently the people in the gallery and the so-called "American Family Association" felt he should be shouted down and silenced.


Everyone is entitled to their opinion and preferences, but the supreme law of this country, the Constitution, makes it very clear that freedom of religious expression is a core value, and that no religious expression is to be given preference over any other. As a Jew I have no objection when, 90+% of the time the invocation in the Senate is given by a Christian clergyperson. I also have no objection if it's a Hindu, a Jain, a Muslim, or a Buddhist. As a person of faith, I think it's good for our Senators to be reminded that they are working "under God," whether every one of them believes that or not, and I don't think it matters what name the invoker calls God – Deity Supreme, Adonai, Allah, God, Father, are, in my view, different words for the same entity. If I call the thing I'm sitting on a chair, une chaise, ein Stuhl, una stilla, kisei, una sedia, or any of hundreds of other words, it remains what it is, so surely God does not change from one language to another.


As a nation we are regressing in this regard. The curve of religious pluralism and attendant religious tolerance that seemed to have been increasing since the Enlightenment seems to have taken a downward turn. It's time we stopped allowing a small number of religious bigots to set the cultural tone and get back to the values this country was founded on.

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