Religious freedom in America
Published May 14, 2003

Iím a big believer in the power of perspective. Everything we see in this world is colored by perspective. Thatís not always a bad thing, but it is the way things are. What do I mean? Well, take a person with red-green color blindness. Unless you have that particular condition, you can read red words printed on a green background. But if you were red-green colorblind, youíd just see an area that was all the same color, without any distinguishing difference between background and text. Thatís a bit literal, but it proves the point: perspective can make a big difference in how we see the world around us.

Of the people who came to this country--to the New World--over the last four hundred years, many came to escape religious persecution in the old world. Protestants came to avoid the sometimes murderous wrath of the established Roman church of Europe, which we now remember in the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews came many years later to escape the pogroms and mass killings of a different kind of European anger. Though I donít have any documentary evidence at hand, I would not be surprised to learn of Iraqi Shiites, among other Muslims, who came here to escape persecution at the hands of Sunni members of Saddam Husseinís government, which prohibited them from expressing their true beliefs.

What does this have to do with perspective? Imagine you are a young Muslim, an American citizen born and raised in this country, going to classes at a high school where you are the only person of your particular faith. In the morning, the homeroom teacher leads a Christian prayer before classes start. The history teacher frequently makes reference to the Ten Commandments. You are a star football player, and before every game, the coach leads the team in a group prayer that specifically mentions Jesus and various tenants of the Christian faith.

Some of you are no doubt nodding right now, thinking, "Sounds fine to me!" But imagine the situation were reversed. Imagine your Christian daughter or son at a school where everyone turned in the morning towards Mecca to pray. Or where the teachers taught passages from the Koran, and led Islamic prayers before football games. How would that make you feel? Left out? Put upon? Perhaps you might feel that it was unfair, that someone elseís religious beliefs were being forced on your child. You would be right.

I do not think that the majority of Americans make a conscious effort to exclude people of other religions, or to make those people feel uncomfortable, but often times this happens anyway. That is why the men who drafted the Constitution and its first ten Amendments went out of their way to say that government should not make laws either establishing one official religion or outlawing any other religion. This protects people of minority faiths but also those of majority faith. Do we really want the government deciding what we should and should not believe? If Christianity is to be the official religion of our country, what form should we follow? Catholic? Lutheran? Episcopal? Baptist? Fundamentalist?

We must face the truth that there is no standard faith for Americans, nor should there be. Our religion should remain in the personal realm, where it enriches and ennobles us and makes us who we are; when we bring it into the public sphere, we risk damage to the balanced structure of freedom and justice that we have spent the last two hundred years carefully constructing.