Wednesday, July 02, 2008

As we celebrate the birth of our nation on this upcoming 4th of July, we must think about what it means to be America - who we are as a country and who we want to be. This is a question we have faced since the founding of our country and is intimately connected to the issue of religion. Without a doubt our country was founded on Christian principles (along with principles from Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment). What is interesting is to look at the fact that those very Christian principles were used to to espouse freedom from and for religion, though not without controversy. I am currently reading Diana Eck's book, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. I highly recommend this book as a way to understand both where we have come from, what our country actually looks like today, and the choices we will have to make about who we are in the future. For a great overview of her research project, go to her website, The Pluralism Project.

In the book Eck talks about the history of the colonies and the different approaches they took to the issue of religious tolerance or exclusion, from colonies that had an established religion to those that did not, and that both sides argued their case on biblical grounds. In seventeenth century Boston, "an anti-Catholic law was enacted stating, 'that no Jesuit or ecclesiasticall person ordained by the authoritie of the pope shall henceforth come within our jurisdiction" (Eck, 36). Eck also points out that

while the Catholic founders of Maryland passed a Toleration Act in 1649, when Protestants came to power in the following decades, Jesuits were banished from the colony and Catholics were denied the right to hold office. Harsh anti-Catholic laws were passed, such as the 1704 law straightforwardly titled An Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery Within This Province. (Eck, 38)
We all know (I hope) that the issue of "establishment" and "toleration" was dealt with in the First Amendment to the Constitution that both prevented the establishment of a state religion and protected the freedom to exercise one's own religion. Of course, no problem is so easily settled.

Today we live in the most religiously diverse country in the world, and the challenge of diversity is always whether we will view it as a gift or an obstacle. Issues of religious diversity often intersect with issues of immigration. Eck cites the following example:

The vast alien immigration is, at the root, an attack upon Protestant religion with its freedom of conscience, and is therefore a menace to American liberties. . . . For forty years the alien, unassimilable masses have been de-Americanizing America. . . . A few more years of our present sentimental, irrational hospitality will reduce the American people to a hopeless minority. (Eck, 27)
That passage could be read today on many websites or heard on talk radio shows referring to Muslims or even to Spanish speaking Christians. It was not directed to either of those groups however. The statement was written in a publication of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924 and was referring to Catholics and Jews. In a post 911 world, unfortunately too many people react to people of other religious traditions with suspicion and hostility. Fortunately, for as many acts of hatred and violence that have been committed, there have also been efforts to reach out to other religious communities and learn more about one another. Just as the founders of our country had to make choices about how to deal with religious diversity and as Americans in the the 1920s and post-war Civil Rights period had to make choices about how to deal with religious diversity, today we are once again faced with this question of who we are, who we are referring to when we say "We the people." Eck points out that

America's response to this question is important, perhaps not only for America but also for the world. Building a multireligious society seems to be increasingly difficult in a world in which religious markers of identity are often presumed to be the most divisive of all differences. (Eck, 66)
Drawing on the sentiment of the American Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray that pluralism requires that we engage one another in dialogue, Eck proposes that such engagement
is vital also to the health of religious faith so that we appropriate our faith not by habit or heritage alone, but by making it our own within the context of dialogue with people of other faiths. Such dialogue is not aimed at achieving agreement, but at achieving relationship. (Eck, 71-72)
This Fourth of July, let us look around at "we the people," people of all different faiths - Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, etc. (and if you doubt that this is the reality that exists today, use the The Pluralism Project directory to look up the communities of these different faiths that are active your own community) and choose to celebrate the gift and opportunity we have been given to engage others and come to mutual understanding through openness and friendship rather than reacting with hostility and fear.

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