December 18, 2014
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Separation of Church and Hate

To the Editor:

Religion sure has been a hot topic of late. Christmas trees, banners and Tebow have all received much attention. On top of this, concern about whether or not President Obama is a Muslim and Mitt Romney's participation in the Mormon Church has been fodder for discussion (at times vitriolic). While America prides itself on the separation of Church and State, the truth is not always clear. Our currency contains the phrase "In God We Trust." In our courtrooms we've sworn on Bibles, along with uttering the words “So help me God." Confusing? Probably so. While we can certainly debate trees, banners and the separation of Church and State, maybe we might also consider an equally fundamental precept. I'm talking about the separation of Church and Hate.

One of America's great strengths has been its acceptance (for the most part) of all kinds of religious beliefs. We can thank folks like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for much of this. Today we have Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, churches for numerous denominations and also a variety of meeting houses, lodges and ceremonial sites. For many people, religion plays a key role in their lives. It brings a sense of community, peace, service and most of all, a connection to a Higher Power. Religious organizations have been responsible for assisting others in need, inclusive of food pantries, building homes, providing for shelters, fuel assistance, counseling and much more. With all of this said, the Christmas tree and banner incidents didn't bring out the best in a number of people. Many claiming to be religious poked fun at the governor, harassed a 16-year-old and told a school committee member that she should visit Hell sometime soon.

I recently attended a rally at the State House where local religious leaders and supporters gathered to petition our elected officials to consider those in need when putting together the upcoming budget. It was a nice event, received some press and hopefully sent an important message. However, compared to trees and banners, it was barely recognized at all. I'm hoping that arguments for the poor are more important than those for trees and banners. I'm also hoping that higher angels will emerge and much of the present fervor will give way so that tolerance, understanding, intelligent debate and discussion can move in. Insulting the governor, intimidating a high school student and harassing a school committee member doesn't bring to mind any lesson I learned in Sunday School.
I began writing this on the day we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King. Not only did he make significant in-roads in the area of Civil Rights, he did so in a non-violent way. Reverend King endured threats, incarcerations and ongoing harassment (even from politicians and the police). He was a strong advocate for a cause – but did so with compassion. We sometimes need to step back a bit and ask ourselves, “What would someone like Martin Luther King do?” Rallies, debates, legal action and petitions in the defense of a cause – great. Insults, threats, condemning people to Hell – not so great.

America is an experiment in progress. The nation continues to grow and evolve. Our ability to embrace new thoughts, ideas and beliefs is an essential part of who we are. The separation of Church and State can be debated – the separation of Church from Hate (hating others that is) needs to be a given. When religion makes way for hate, haven't we become like those we fear? We often speak of religions that hate – why then go there? In many ways, America is the best nation on Earth. There can be no denial that a belief in God has driven much of our greatness. Those who choose not to believe; let them do so. Those who choose believing; let that belief serve as a guide. Whoever you are, whatever you believe; ridicule, hate and those other forces that keep us apart should be cast aside.

The issue of Church and State is an ongoing concern. We swear on Bibles, pledge allegiance to “one nation under God,” sing “God bless America” at all kinds of events, etc., etc. Forget the tree and banner; religious symbols and concerns collide with the state all the time. One need not go all the way back to Salem, Mass., and later on to the whole Manifest Destiny thing (hunting witches, annexing Mexico and beating up Indians), to see how emotion, religion and politics combined can be a powerful force (not always for good). While the present debates go no way near this level of fervor, a few more recent happenings can attest to how volatile the combination of religious and political pursuits can be.

Remember that there was once a concern about John F. Kennedy being a Catholic. He had to defend himself by telling us that he'd be more loyal to the country than to the Pope. Remember the influence Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority had on politics? One can find additional examples even in today's election process. It will be interesting to see when the country will be ready for a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist president. It will be really interesting to see whether or not we could handle an atheist as Commander in Chief. Clearly, we have much to talk about. Hopefully those who pray for peace will fight for their causes in ways that honor that which they believe. 

All too often some individuals use religion to move political agendas. This goes for those who choose to believe and those who don't. Sadly, these folks sometimes opt for Pyrrhic victory over seeking ways to create greater acceptance and understanding.

Out of this comes the potential for much good. People care about their rights, history and beliefs. We can all support freedom of individual conscience. If we can come out of the Christmas tree and banner issues with a greater passion for meaning, that would be wonderful. Keep the faith.

Bob Houghtaling
East Greenwich


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