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I’ve never been able to comprehend conflicts brought about because of religion, and yet it is a fact of history that some of the most terrible wars and persecutions were precipitated by religious fervor. As a Catholic I’ve read much about those of my own religious persuasion as both aggressors and victims of political oppression. When I witness certain religious beliefs being demonized I always worry, because so many times the initial tongue wagging and fears devolve into very dangerous situations. Little wonder that our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to demand a strict separation between Church and State. Sadly that line of demarcation is often blurred to a toxic level that has the potential to erupt into a kind of civil war. 

I recall glancing at headlines about the troubles in Northern Ireland during my earliest years as an adult. The town of Belfast became synonymous in my mind with bombs and terrorist activities. Eventually the violence spilled over into England as well. It baffled me that so much trouble occurred with religion at its root, even though there was a tangle of many other factors as well. Somehow religious wars and conflicts are oxymorons to me and yet I know that the Puritans who fled the old world for the new, did so in hopes of finding a place where they would be free to follow their own religious beliefs instead of being literally jailed because of their differences. 

Last week I watched the Kenneth Branagh film, Belfast. It was a kind of memoir of his youth in Northern Ireland. The movie centers on a young boy named Buddy and his family who were living peacefully and happily in a neighborhood composed of Catholics and Protestants. The movie begins with a lovely scene of children playing when a gang of thugs descend upon the street to damage the homes where Catholics were living. From that point in 1969, the seriousness of the situation grows ever more dire until Buddy’s family begins to wonder if they must leave the city that they love for the sake of keeping everyone safe. 

Belfast is a beautiful and touching film that makes the conflict in Northern Ireland feel intensely personal. It also speaks to the sadness of divisiveness brought on by religious bigotry, a theme repeated again and again throughout history. I left the movie feeling a universe of emotions, but mostly wondering why we humans do not see the signs of trouble long before they erupt into wars between one another. Why do we allow such poisonous behaviors to grow and multiply? What makes one group of religious folk become so self-righteous that they justify violence toward others by invoking God?

I honestly worry right now about the continuous mixing of religion with political influence that is happening in many corners of the world. In the Middle East many nations are built on the principles of a particular Muslim sect. In our own country there is a constant push to place Christianity at the center of public policy, thus ignoring the the many diverse religious beliefs of vast numbers of the population. I fret over the idea that there is one best way of governing the people when it is based solely on a limited religious preference when even within the term Christianity there are so many differing rules and traditions. 

Like the Founding Fathers I strongly believe that religion should always be a personal thing, not a purview of the State. When folks ask for prayers to be part of the daily routine at schools I doubt that they think that every conceivable religion should be represented in those recitations. Too many insist that this should be a Christian country even as we are filled with a population of many different faiths and even some who do not believe in such things at all.

When I hear of such demands I shudder because even though as a Catholic I think of myself as being a Christian, I know that many think of Catholics as being something other than Christian. We all saw the backlash against Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith when he ran for President of the United States. There are far too many advocating for a Christian country who totally misunderstand Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even Jews. Ours must be an all inclusive democratic republic that allows each individual the right to religious views of their own without pressure from the government to conform to a single way of believing. 

Watching Belfast only hardened my thinking that, but for the brilliance of those who wrote our original Constitution, we would have had a civil war not just over slavery, but also over religion. Sadly, we are dangerously close to such a slippery slope in the present. Decisions made by our government should never be influenced by one faith over another, but rather by a consideration of the general welfare of all of the people. 

We are already more politically divided than at any time since the Civil War. Friend is turning against friend. Anger has overtaken reason. Lies and propaganda are spreading like wildfire. Religion is too often being used to drive us apart. We don’t want to become like Belfast once was. Our neighborhoods are beautifully diverse. Let’s protect our lovely differences and live together in harmony and peace.