I grew up in a relatively small town with a Catholic father and a born-again-Christian mother. My parents raised me Catholic because that was the deal they made when they got married. This is somewhat ironic, since my father never attended church regularly and still does not, while my mother attends church at least once, and often twice, a week. They sent me to a local Catholic church with a neighbor, and my father did make sure that I went through the First Holy Communion and Confirmation processes. My mother whispered things to me when my dad wasn't around about her beliefs and her church; I vividly remember her explaining to me sometime in the 70s how UPC codes were a sign from the book of Revelation that the end of the world was coming. (Please don't ask; it still freaks me out.)
As I got older, I thought a lot about these two Christian faiths to which I was exposed. Both made me uncomfortable for multiple reasons. I simply did not agree with many of these two churches' positions on social issues. I did not like the Catholic Church's insistence on form and rules over substance; the way that priests (at least the ones I encountered) treated their parishioners; I disapproved of the extravagance and showiness -- not to mention the purported infallibility -- of popery. I did not like the submissive nature of my mother's church, in which one had to give up one's life and apparently free will to a vague yet scary notion of an all-powerful god; the extent to which one had to perform mental gymnastics in order to live one's life according to What The Bible Said (which wasn't clear at all); and other things, too.
As a young adult, I had an epiphany (if you'll pardon the pun). First, I realized that I couldn't solve the problem of my dissatisfaction with these religions by playing pick and choose: e.g., I don't like the Catholic Church's attitude toward homosexuality, but I'll ignore that and go to church anyway. That felt dishonest to me, particularly since there wasn't much about either religion that I affirmatively liked.
I also realized that I did not have to choose one or the other of the faiths of my parents. I decided that what was important about religion, or spirituality, wasn't a pro forma adherence to what one's family did (in my case, that didn't even really solve the problem, since there were two not-always-consistent faiths) but rather a sincere belief in some religion or model of spirituality. Or none (although that's a belief in itself). I went through a phase of being nothing, and then when T. and I were engaged, we decided to check out some local churches, since we both wanted to get married in a church. (Yes, illogical, isn't it?) We found an Episcopalian church with a wonderful rector and extremely laissez-fair Episcopalianism seems to work for us. At least right now.
Lately, the issue of religion and politics has been all over the place. Every time an Islamist blows himself up (taking numerous others with him, natch) in the name of establishing an Islamist state. Every time a conservative politician talks about banning stem cell research. Each new incident of violence in Iraq where Sunni and Shi'ite are pitted against one another. Even on knitting blogs like Joe's, where I participated in an often-heated discussion about gay marriage bans.
The intersection of religion and politics raises unbelievably complex issues, and I've been able to come to only one firm conclusion: the only way to peace and prosperity -- in religion and politics -- is tolerance and acceptance of other's differences. That means that any religion that says "my way or the highway (to hell)" is a Bad Thing. I don't care what else a particular religion says or doesn't say; the very act of saying "my way is the only way" is, to me, the root of all evil. Islamists who would fly airplanes into buildings to kill strangers because those strangers believe something different. Fundamentalist Christians who would deny equal rights under the law to homosexuals because homosexuals believe that their sexuality is a given and not a chosen sin. Catholics who would ban stem cell research because it uses embryonic tissue and the Catholic Church says abortion is bad. And so on.
I believe that the founders of our government shared my queasiness at the establishment of any one religion by a political state. Most of them came from England, where the Anglican Church is intermeshed in government and which at the time was extremely intolerant of other religions. They purposely set up a government in which religious institutions played no role. The Constitution (in the form of the first amendment) prohibits the establishment of any one religion by our government. These principles are under attack by religious groups of all kinds. It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Christians, or Catholics, or Muslims, or Rastafarians, or The First Church Of The Immaculate Flip-flops -- the intolerance is the same. Certain groups (of course not ALL in all groups) want to enshrine their individual religious beliefs in our laws and thereby impose them on others.
This I do not understand. I believe in a country where anyone can worship anyone or anything they wish, or not, and that's their own personal business. Certain religious principles -- for example, human sacrifice -- cannot be allowed for obvious reasons, but otherwise, if you are worshipping your own god in your own way and not hurting anyone else, you should be given the freedom to do so. But getting that kind of respect for one's religion requires that you give it to others. And there's the rub. I have yet to hear a reasonable answer to the question "Why can't you simply live your own life according to your religion without attempting to legislate others into conforming to your beliefs?"
While I was mulling over this post, I ran across a news story describing how a manufacturer of religious toys tried to give a talking Jesus doll to the Toys for Tots program. Toys for Tots said no, thanks. The vice-president of Toys for Tots explained why: "We can't take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family." And in a perhaps-not-shocking display of intolerance, the toy manufacturer's response was that "anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the bible." (Even if it's not their holy book and they don't believe it's the word of God.)
Our society cannot survive "my way or the highway" religion. We can't tolerate it in free toys for kids who don't have any, and we can't tolerate it in our legislature. It will surely lead to hell on earth for us all.
Not to mention a really un-fun Christmas for a bunch of poor kids.