The immediate responses were three emails in which the writers accused him of hating Christians, and went on to decry the loss of morality since liberals began persecuting Christians. Mind you these were KINKY people, which means msot of them are pretty left of center. I posted to politely point out that no one had made any disparaging remarks about Christians, but that knowing who was running the demo gave us a better idea of how arage it would (big) and how well-organized (very) it would be--and that, like it or not, it wasn't Wiccans, Buddhists, Jews or Hindus trying to shut the palce down, but CHRISTIANS. The list owner stepped in and banned the topic before it disintegrated into an all-out brawl, but I continued the exchange off-list with the most rabid of the three. It was an eye-opening discussion for both of us.
The first thing I asked her was what she meant by persecution of Christians and people hating Christians. Could she give me examples. I simply couldn't understand how members of various sects a religion which counts 80% of Americans as members and who elected this president and Congress were being persecuted.
She sure could. Christians, she said, no longer had any rights, while other religions were demanding special rights Christians had lost. I asked her to be more explicit. She was. Christians couldn't pray or read the Bible in school. Teachers weren't allowed to witness in public school classrooms. Christians had to tolerate every other crazy nut group cult with respect even though they were all going to hell, but couldn't practice their religion on the job or in school. Christian values--opposition to homosexuality and premarital sex --were mocked, while sex ed pushed that being gay was fine and encouraged kids to have sex by shoving birth control at them. And it was all the fault of liberal activist judges who hated Christianity and didn't care that the Founding Fathers intended this to be a Christian Nation Under a Christian God..
The light dawned. She was mad as hell about some Supreme Court decisions which had declared prayer and Bible reading in schools, teachers using their classrooms to spread their beliefs, and not permitting religious harassment int the workplace. From her point of view, Christians had had these rights since the earliest days of this country--and those damned liberal activist judges had taken them away. She was partly right. What she didn't see was that the Supremes had decided correctly , and that their decisions were firmly based in history and the original intent of the Founding Fathers.
I set out to explain how the courts worked and began with a hsitory lesson.
First I looked at her sincere belief that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian Nation. While the Declaration does refer to a Creator, the writers of the constitution deliberately chose not to. There is no mention of Christ, Christianity, a Christian Nation, a Creator or God in this document. None. Nada. Zilch.
Moreover, this belief that Christianity should hold a special place in our nation should have been laid to rest when the constitution was ratified, because one of the clauses clearly states that there is no religious test for public office--in other words, whatever you believe or don't believe is irrelevant when you run for office. There were lots of objections to this, because, as was pointed out, that meant CATHOLICS or even ATHEISTS could be elected. Despite the objections of a few, the constitution was ratified and, Falwell and Robertson to the contrary, and anyone of any faith or none at all, is entitled to hold public office.
Just in case that wasn't clear enough, the Bill of Rights stated that " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" thus guaranteeing that there would be no established church to which all must belong and that all religions--ALL, not just all CHRISTIAN religions--must be treated equally. Of course, the devil is in the details, and people have been arguing about just what those two clauses mean for two centuries.
There is one other document that is pertinent to the "Christian Nation" debate, and that is the Treaty of Tripoli, whose negotiations were begun by George Washington, and the final wording signed by John Adams, and ratified by Congress which states: " As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
There it is in black and white: America is not, nor was it ever intended to be, founded upon the Christian religion. It is a nation where the majority of its citizens are Christians, but it is NOT a Christian Nation. That Alexis, the woman with whom I was discussing this issue . had never heard of the Treaty of Tripoli nor understood the implications in either the first amendment or ban on religious tests wasn't her fault, but that of our educational system which fails miserably when it comes to teaching Americans about our history and them meaning of our laws.
I went on to explain WHY the Founding Fathers were so adamant about freedom of religion extending to ALL faiths--the nasty religious wars that had been occurred from t he Crusades to the Catholic Church's Inquisition to the English battles between Protestants and Catholics to the Puritans versus Everybody Else to the laws which gave English Catholics far fewer rights than Protestants had (especially in Ireland). Unlike Alexis, the Founding Fathers knew all about these wars, and wanted to avoid them in the new nation they had created.
Unfortunately, these principles were often not followed in reality. The white males who could vote were by and large Protestant.
What she didn't understand, was that those practices had ALWAYS been unconstitutional. It's just that until the 1960s, non-Protestants in this country kept a low profile and didn't sue for their rights. Instead they formed their own educational system which they paid for to avoid their children being indoctrinated into lukewarm non-denominational Protestantism. Catholics turned to parochial school, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews founded yeshivas, and evangelicals created their own Christian academies. It was easier t keep their heads down.
She asked me if prayer in the schools was so wrong, why they hadn't challenged it earlier. I pointed out that African Americans should always have had the same rights as white people, but it wasn't until the 1950s that they had organized en masse and taken on the system, even though there had always been some who had fought for their rights. Catholics in America were relative newcomers--except in the state of Maryland which had been founded by Lord Baltimore to be a refuge for English Catholics. They were immigrants and poor and on the bottom of the social ladder: Irish, Italians, Poles, French, Spanish. In order to keep your job and not be labeled a trouble-maker, you keep your head down, and you don't make waves. You stick with your own. And you find ways around the laws. The Jews did the same thing. Eventually you assimilated and won grudging acceptance--but you still didn't make waves.
Unfortunately, in order for the Supremes to conclude that a law or practice is unconstitutional, someone has to sue, and then the case must make its way through the judicial system. Nobody was willing to do so until the 1950s.
It wasn't until the African American civil rights movement paved the way, that religious minorities were emboldened to fight the system that oppressed them by forcing their children to sit through what amounted to religious indoctrination. While Madelyn Murray O'Hare was among the first to take on school prayer, many of the other cases were brought by deeply religious people whose beliefs system was being. The co-plaintiffs with Murray when the two cases attacking school prayer and Bible reading finally reached the Supreme Court were a family of Unitarians. The two families who brought suit in Santa Fe v. Doe, the decision which banned student-led public prayers were , respectively, Catholic and Mormon. In fact, they had attempted to settle privately by requesting that the prayers be rotated so that all religions might have a chance--but that was rejected. Only then did they file suit.
Alexis began to get a glimmer of understanding. Christians had been permitted to do things that were unconstitutional. All the courts were doing was leveling the playing field, and treating ALL religions precisely the same. The rights she saw as being taken away from Christians were rights they never really had. Non-Christians weren't trying to persecute Christians or demanding "special rights" (whatever that means' but merely asking that they be treated the same as Christians. Since the justices intelligently realized that there is no such thing as a non-denominational prayer that will not offend anyone's religious beliefs (including atheists who have the same rights as believers to their lack of belief), schools cannot require mandatory unison prayers. Another solid reason for not permitting them is that while students whose religious beliefs differ substantially from the majority could simply ask to be excused, this marks them as
different' and sets them up to be bullied, something that has happened to Wiccan kids several times ( google Tempest Smith for a particularly sad example).
I went on to explain that the reason teachers cannot use the classroom as a forum for expounding their religious beliefs--thus infringing to some degree on their freedom of speech--is that when they teach in a public school, they stand as representatives of the government--and the government MUST remain neutral. A second reason is no teacher is forced to take a job in a public school; instead they choose to do so, knowingly accepting that infringement on their rights. Students, on the other hand, are required to attend school, so they have greater rights to discuss religion and practice it. They may gather in groups before and after school and during free periods to pray, and int he classroom they may pray in a non-disruptive manner. They are free to carry Bibles or other religious books and read them outside of class. They may interject their religious beliefs into class discussion in a non-disruptive manner. When she asked for an example, I suggested that " I believe homosexuality is a sin and that practicing homosexuals must become straight or say celibate to get to Heaven" would be acceptable "God hates fags and all you perverts are going to help" definitely isn't. The same applies to T shirts --" Homosexuality is a sin" is probably OK but "God hates fags likely isn't." Students may share their faith with others in free time at school--but they aren't permitted to harass them.
I went on to explain that the same rules apply to the workplace, though management does have the right to regulate limit behavior during working hours. For instance, they could have strict rules about what may be displayed on your desk, banning all religious paraphernalia. That is probably legal if it extends to all religions equally. If they single out one faith--Christianity, say,--it isn't. If they permit use f company facilities to one religion, they must do so for all. And they cannot ban religious behavior during breaks or lunch. There are however limits to how far one can go with religious speech in he workplace--it can become harassment.
We both benefited from this exchange. She learned some history and law, and I learned that a lot of Christians aren't paranoid but simply have never had the facts explained to them. I made sure she had links to the court decisions so she could read them herself, and to some websites explaining the ratification of the constitution. While she still felt that Christians had lost something very valuable and that the schools and morality had suffered from it, she now understood that ALL religions were being treated the same, that the rights Wiccans, Muslims, Jews, Hindus were demanding were simply the same rights Christians had had--that they weren't "special rights" at all..
So next time, when you are tempted to lambaste some fundamentalist who complains about Christians being persecuted, understand that from their point of view, they HAVE lost something important--and that they probably don't know that they were the ones with special rights. Explain the truth to them politely. One thing I have found helpful is to ask them how they would feel if Christianity was a minority faith, and Muslims predominated. Would they want their child to be forced to pray toward Mecca during school hours? Would they want their child to have to listen to readings from the Q'oran and to be taught the Muslim faith? That puts it in perspective--and if that doesn't work I ask if they beleive that parents and only parents have the right to decide what religion their children will be raised in. The answer is always "YES!" I then point out that prayers and Bible reading and religious instruction in the public school interferes with parental rights.
Once in a while someone will retort that those decisions were wrongly decided. At that point I explain stare decisis, and that they have been the law for over 40 years, and are unlikely to be overturned.
When Christians talk about hatred for Christians and being persecuted, it is a sincere position and must be respected. They see a world changing fast, moving away from the traditional values they grew up with and which they cherish. This is a very difficult time in history, and many people don't cope well with diversity. The anger we hear on these issues often stems from fear that they will be overwhelmed by these changes. With rare exceptions (the Christian Reconstructionists, who want a Biblical theocracy to replace the constitution) most just don't know the facts of history and have never had the legalities explained clearly. Our schools do a miserable job when it comes to teaching history and the constitution.
I hope I'm not sounding condescending here. I'm trying not to. I am not singling out Christians or trying to paint them as dumb or uninformed. It's just that in all the years I have posted on the Net in forums, it is almost always conservative Christians who see themselves as persecuted or hated, and who really don't know why things have changed so much in a few decades. From their point of view they have lost something very precious, and their resentment and anger is perfectly understandable--and until we acknowledge that, dialogue isn't possible, and the culture wars will continue to rage. And that hurts all of us in the long run.
We face global problems. Poverty. The abuse of women and children. AIDS. bird flu and other illnesses that may become pandemics. Pollution. Global warming. Overpopulation. These are not issues one nation or one religion can fight alone. We need to work together. We must not allow religion to divide us. We must seek common ground, the areas where we can agree, where our interests and our religious beliefs are similar. And that cooperation must begin at home. How can we tell Sunnis and Shiites to get along--if Catholics and Southern Baptists don't set an example?
NOTE: crossposted from Streeet Prophets