First thanks to John for inviting me to become a contributor to this blog. I doubt I can fill Raven's shoes but I hope I can bring something interesting to the waves.
For help with data mining for this article I'd like to thank Wikipedia, the Vatican web-site, the Boston College Library - Theology section.
There are many things that worry me these days about religion. First it seems that there is this feeling that if you don't agree with someone's religion somehow you've become the enemy. Second it seems as though the message has gotten screwed up. And finally, there seems to be mis-attributions all over the place.
I'm going to use Christianity because here in the United States many people are familiar with the tenets of that religion but there are examples with every major "revealed" religion. What I mean by 'revealed' is that in most religions God has revealed himself or herself to the people. As opposed to the Deists (like some of our founding fathers) who believe that God exists but did not reveal himself directly but showed himself through the natural world and through reason.
So let's start backwards with number 3 shall we? Yes, a fair number of our founding fathers were NOT Christian. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are two biggies.
Ben Franklin, for example became disillusioned with organized religion. He consistently attacked religious dogma, arguing that morality was more dependent upon virtue and benevolent actions rather than on strict obedience to religious orthodoxy: "I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me."
As John Adams noted, Franklin was a mirror in which people saw their own religion: "The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker." Whatever else Benjamin Franklin was, concludes Morgan, "he was a true champion of generic religion."
Mr. Jefferson, as you may recall, somewhat famous for being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a document, also somewhat famous in that it actually created the United States of America, was more radical than even Franklin. Jefferson, in 1800 was accused by his political opponents of being an atheist and enemy of religion. Of course he wasn't. Like Franklin though, he was a deist. Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death; but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. Something that the Christians of today apparently do not know about our Mr. Jefferson.
My point in educating you about Franklin and Jefferson is that I've heard many Conservative Christians and their organizations laying their points of view of subjects like gay marriage at the feet of our founding fathers saying such things as 'we have to keep this country Christian the way our founders intended it'. Unfortunately, two of the founding fathers, two rather important founding fathers including the man who wrote the document that created the country, were not Christian.
That is not to say that they did not believe in God, they did, just not the dogmatic, rules driven, you're going to hell if you piss me off kind of God. For further information of Deism, see Wikipedia because I'm not going to go into the social history of Deism here. But in short, Deism is a religious philosophy and methodology that asserts the existence of one God or supreme being. It holds that the proper source of religion comes from the exercise of human reason, the observation of the natural world and the utilization of personal experience with emphasis on individual freedom of thought. As such, Deists reject divine revelation and holy books, which in turn leads to the rejection of revealed religion.
Other famous Deists, like Franklin and Jefferson include James Madison (former President), Abraham Lincoln (former President), George Washington (former President), Thomas Paine, Aristotle, Cicero and others, search the net for famous Deists for a more complete list. Not bad company though huh?
It should be no great that surprise that anything that stresses "exercise of human reason, the observation of the natural world and the utilization of personal experience with emphasis on individual freedom of thought" goes over REALLY big with me. Assuming God gave us a brain, it we would be nice if we used it to make our own decisions and draw our own conclusions.
Now I grant that many of the other founding fathers were Christian but if you actually read the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution they are clearly intended to create a country of secular laws (contrary to the opinion of Katherine Harris and others) and while acknowledging religion as an important component of people's lives, clearly stating that religion should not be institutionalized in government.
Just one more observation. Seems to me as though the founding fathers were among the most liberal guys in the country at their time, perhaps at any time. Liberalism is an ideology, philosophical view, and political tradition which holds that liberty is the primary political value. Face it, these guys were not conservatives. In fact, they were so liberal they formed a whole new country based on the principal of liberalism, that being liberty.
So much for number 3. Moving backward to point 2...getting the message correct. I understand the Bible and the books not included in the Bible can be read and interpreted in as many ways as there are languages. But generally I see the message of Jesus as a message asking people to help the poor, reject wealth as an overriding pursuit of life and to live in peace and love and not judge or neighbors. Now I look at politics today and I see tax breaks for the wealthy and the poor being disenfranchised and marginalized more and more each day and war being waged and policies imposed on people around the world. I've no doubt that George Bush is a man of faith but I have to wonder about whose faith he keeps. His form of Christianity seems to be more closely tied to the view of Christianity held by Constantine I, who, while doing great things to legitimize Christianity, didn't do much to try to live by Jesus's message. If the words of the Book of Matthew are correct, I suspect George Bush will have do serious back-pedaling and repentance to walk into heaven.
The message of Jesus is not one of hatred and judgment In fact, what I find most interesting is that of all the directives and prohibitions listed in the Holiness code (Leviticus 17-26) I am consistently shocked that only the directives involving sex, and in particular homosexuality, are quoted today. The prohibitions about blending cloth and not eating shellfish and even the rule to continually have oil and bread are never seen to be quoted or held out as important. When is the last time you heard a Christian group quote Leviticus to admonish people not to eat the naturally dead (Leviticus 17:15-16). But we've all heard 'do not be sexually involved with a man as you would with a woman' from Leviticus 18. The Christians are screaming that one from the rooftops these days.
So it seems to me that the lessons of 'judge not lest ye be judged' and 'let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone' have been lost today in the attempt to insist that everyone think the same way as Christians. In fact, both of these statement, made by Jesus if memory serves, basically say the same thing...keep you're nose out of other people's business. Is that not the correct interpretation? Worry about yourself an not about your neighbor.
So much for number 2, now onto the number 1. Actually some of this is handled in the last part of number 2. Since when is believing in something different become the sole requirement to make people enemies. Let me personalize this for a moment. I am no great fan of any religion. I think religion is responsible for more death and destruction throughout history than any other single cause. I think it's a curse on all of mankind. I think the idea of a supreme being creating life and then stepping out and saying let me confound your languages and give you different rules and beliefs and then step away without shred one of evidence that I ever existed or exist now, is ludicrous.
However, I also respect that fact that people choose to believe in various deities and worship these invisible creatures using various practices and that we have come to call this collection of practices, words and beliefs, religion. Different practices + different words + different beliefs = different religions. Everyone believes that everybody else is wrong and everyone has a commandment to "spread the faith". Therein lies the problem. When zealous people get to 'spreading the faith', people of differing beliefs come into contact with each other, which, has proved to be a really bad idea.
I get a real kick out of the Mormons whose leader saw an angel in upstate New York who apparently told him to move to the desert and found a really good choir next to a lake of salt. Today there are wineries in that area of New York and the angels are now vintners. Anyway, my point being that I have little trust in a religion that sells itself door to door. Recently, 2 Elders of the Mormon faith came around my neighborhood as I was leaving my home. I said 'Good Afternoon Elders' as I walked by them. They were shocked that I knew who and what they were. 'Are you Mormon?' they asked, 'No, I'm a student of religion....oh and I'm gay too' I replied. 'Have fun in hell' they replied, now scowling as though they'd smelled something bad, 'You too' I responded and drove off.
Why did they scowl and tell me have fun in hell? Just because I said I was gay? I didn't reject them or their beliefs and I went out of my way to acknowledge them courteously and properly. The reason was that I don't fit into their neat little box of the way people should be. Being gay is a high crime in Mormonism, there is no reconciliation within the church. Therefore it inspired instant disgust and hatred.
I understand the mechanics but not how that action reflects in the belief system. For Christians we see the same thing on the gay marriage issue. Conservative Christians see the gay marriage issue as a personal attack on them and their belief system. Ignoring that fact that this is a free country, they now attack gay people in every way short of physically. They attack verbally, legislatively, politically. Going so far as to attempt to write into the Constitution a prohibition against gay marriage which I contend if a violation of the First Amendment in that it attempts to write the belief system of Christianity in the Constitution which violates the clause "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Enshrining a tenet of Christianity into the Constitution is tantamount to making a law with respect to the establishment of a religion. Now I know people will disagree, that's OK. This is America, people are allowed to disagree with each other or at least we are supposed to be allowed to disagree with each other. But that doesn't mean any person or group of people is less deserving of respect and that's exactly what we see happening.
Being a Liberal today is seen as a bad thing...as being anti-God, anti-Christian, anti-family. I'm not anti-anything, except maybe anti-poverty, anti-homelessness, anti-war, anti-hatred, OK so maybe I am anti a few things.
I can see a day when there will be 2 United States, the United States of America and the United Christian States of America. I'd hate to see that vision become reality, but until we all decide that this is a country of civil laws where all people are to be treated equally and stop trying to shove our own person moral views down each others throats, I'm afraid that's the direction in which we are all heading.
You don't have to like gay people, but you have to respect them as citizens. You don't have to like Christians, but you have to respect them as citizens. You don't have to like Muslims or East Indians or African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans or Whites or women or men or whatever, but you do have to respect all people as citizens and all citizens should have the same rights under the law.
The 14th Amendment from 1868 says "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." and unfortunately I see it violated everyday with respect to unmarried people, gay people, Muslim people, people suspected of being terrorists. We've all but thrown out the equal protection clause and the due process clause is in serious danger from the Patriot Act.
The Constitution's Preamble says:
- We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
I'll remind you that it says "in order to form a more perfect union" it does not say a 'in order to form a perfect union', but rather a more perfect union. I humbly suggest that we have a long way to go and lot more work to do.