A Sacred Freedom

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I am a woman of faith. I was brought up in the Catholic Church and still practice that religion. My two brothers had the same upbringing but only one of them regularly attends church and it is not Catholic, but rather Baptist. The other brother is agnostic meaning that he is not ready to deny that there is a God but he is unsure that such a being exists. In my days of teaching I encountered colleagues and students of many different religions and even some who were atheists. 

I love my own religion and it has served me as a haven in times of great distress. I doubt that I would be as sane as I am were it not for my unfaltering dependence on the comfort of God. Nonetheless, I see religion as the most personal of human experiences and for that reason I have only the highest respect for the decisions that each person makes with regard to faith. It does not hurt me in the least if somebody differs with my religious philosophies as long as they do not force me to agree with theirs. I treasure the fact that there is a separation of church and state in the United States. I would have it no other way. 

So many came to the Americas before it was a nation because they were being persecuted in European countries. The pilgrims that we celebrate each Thanksgiving faced persecution and imprisonment for their beliefs. Coming to this land was a last resort. In the modern era we have witnessed the killing of Jews for no other reason than their faith. We witnessed extreme prejudice toward John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. Religion is all too often used to bludgeon those who are different or misunderstood. Our Founding Fathers purposely chose to make the freedom to worship or not worship one of the foundations of our constitution. 

When I taught in a Catholic school I enjoyed being able to pray and speak of my religion during my daily work but I understood as a public school teacher that to do so would be wrong. I have had students of so many different religious persuasions. I had Seventh Day Adventists whose faith demanded that they stay silently seated silent during our daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. I defended their right to do so. I had students of various Christian faiths who gathered privately each morning to pray. I had Muslim students who wore special garments and fasted during certain holy times. I thought it quite wonderful that so much diversity of thought was so vibrantly alive around me. 

Freedom of religion is just one more incredible aspect of living in this country. I would not want to threaten it by having a national God or having prayer in the schools. My first thought regarding that is, “Whose prayers would they be?” The way things are now done is far better because faith and prayer stay private and personal just as they should be. 

I always smile a bit at a memory of a woman with whom I worked who was Mormon. She invited me and some other teachers to a craft day at her temple. We had a ton of fun and everyone there called me Sister Sharron. We learned that they were not allowed to drink caffeine so we went to our car at lunch time to sip on our Cokes and Dr. Peppers. At the end of the day the worshippers began to pray and my friend worried that we would feel funny. I told her that I enjoyed just listening and learning more about her faith. 

My husband and I are in the process of learning about the world’s most dominant religions. So far we have studied Hinduism and Buddhism. They are quite fascinating and gaining more knowledge about them makes me much more appreciative of a very large percentage of the world’s population. Our next foray will be into Judaism which will be particularly interesting since Jesus was a Jew who became the founder of Christianity. 

I think we would do well to be very careful about mixing religion and politics. That should be the purview of the churches and temples and mosques. It feels icky when a leader shows extreme public preference to any one form of worship. It is fine to know that he or she attends services somewhere but it should never become a public show or way of judging Americans. I was quite disturbed when President Trump made such a big deal about walking past protesters to stand in front of a church that he has never attended to hold up a Bible. Of late he acts as though he is a champion of religion but in reality it is only certain religions and not all. That is a dangerous slippery slope that I do not wish to see. Our nation is a big enough tent for everyone whether they be snake charmers, Methodists, or non-believers. It is not up to any of us to judge or to be pushy in our proselytizing. 

I think back to a conversation I once had with my mother not long before she died. She asked me what a would do if a member of ISIS threatened to cut off my head if I refused to praise Allah. I thought for a moment and admitted that I would hope to have enough courage to be a martyr for my faith. She laughed and told me how foolish I was. She insisted that God would know my heart and he would not be upset at all if I faked my response to survive. That same mother of mine died a few weeks later clutching a statue of the Virgin Mary after having a day of prayer with family and a Catholic priest. 

We must be careful about anyone who would turn us against other Americans based on religion. We must be concerned with ideas of tying love of country with belief in a particular God. We must ask ourselves why anyone would use religion or a lack of it to drive us apart. Our self righteousness must not be so strong that we imply that our relationship with God is somehow better than that of someone who is different As my saintly mother said, only God knows what is in our hearts and only He should be our judge. We must protect the most sacred of all our freedoms.