Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Religious Tolerance in America? Not Yet...

Today is Wednesday, November 6, 2013.

In the United States, we're gearing up for the next big holiday, Thanksgiving.  We tell our kids that the Pilgrims came to the New World to find religious freedom, because they didn't want to join the Church of England, the king's church.  We teach our public school kids that the Pilgrims and the local Indians (we don't even specify which tribe) made friends, and that one of the Natives actually spoke English and taught the settlers to plant corn and hunt local wildlife for food.  We don't mention that this Native American man, a member of the Patuxet tribe, a part of the Wampanoag Confederacy, learned English because he had been taken prisoner to be sold as a slave. We don't tell them that before he could be sold, he was taken by some Catholic friars, who attempted to convert him.  We don't tell them that he worked for a shipbuilder in England for several years in order to pay his way back to his native land, where he discovered that his entire village had been wiped out by smallpox, caught from the European settlers.  (Think about this: would you help the very people who were responsible for giving your entire tribe a disease from which every last man, woman and child died?)

We tell the students that the Pilgrims and the Indians got together for a big harvest feast that we like to call the First Thanksgiving. We pretty much stop the story there, and then send the kids home for a four-day weekend, where some of them actually do have a big family meal on Thursday and others don't. After that, everybody who can stand to watch (American) football does so.  On Friday, many of us forget all about Thanksgiving and begin the gear-up toward Christmas, beginning with the Black Friday sales.

Once we've taught the kids about the first Thanksgiving feast, we kind of fast forward through the Colonial Period to the Revolutionary War, forgetting to mention that although the settlers from England – who might rightly be termed "invaders" by the Native people who were already here – wanted to practice religious freedom, they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, prepared to practice religious tolerance.  In other words, they wanted to be free to practice their own religion, but they didn't necessarily want anyone else to be free to practice theirs.  Practicing a religion different from the colony founders – in more than one colony – could get you banned, jailed or hanged.  

We criticize the Muslim extremists for wanting to kill all unbelievers, but we gloss over the fact that French Huguenots (Protestants) established a colony near what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, and were attacked and wiped out by Spanish (Catholic, of course) explorers.  The first war involving Europeans in the New World was a bloodbath brought on by religious intolerance.  These people were all Christians and they couldn't even get along.

The Native Americans had their own spiritual path, but that wasn't good enough for the European settlers, who were predominantly Christian.  The Catholics, in particular, set out to convert all the Natives to Christianity, to the point that they wanted to completely destroy their culture.  No blending, no "melting pot."  They just wanted to end the Native American culture altogether.  Although some Native Americans do continue to espouse Christianity, Catholicism in particular, many are beginning to take back their spiritual beliefs and ceremonies and to assert their right to practice their own customs and spiritual beliefs. 

The Founding Fathers of the United States argued long and hard about how or whether to incorporate religion into the Constitution.  They ended up settling for a separation of church and state, but it was an uneasy separation.  

Several states had laws on their books that prohibited Catholics from holding office because of a widely-held fear that once a Catholic was elected to office, he would immediately turn the country over to the authority of the Pope.  John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, had to deal with this belief that persisted into the 1960s by making a special speech.  In Massachusetts, only Christians could hold office, and Catholics could do so only if they renounced the authority of the Pope. In New York, Catholics could not hold office, period.  In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but the Jews did not.  In Delaware, you had to swear an oath affirming belief in the Trinity in order to hold office.  Massachusetts and South Carolina actually had official, "state-supported" churches.  It's no surprise, then, that Irish immigrants to the United States were treated so poorly.  After all, they were mostly Catholic.

Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church in Missouri, igniting the wrath of the mainstream Protestants there.  The governor of Missouri finally expelled all the Mormons from the state, and on their way out to Utah, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in Illinois.  Mainstream Christians have never been comfortable with Mormonism, with its secrecy and its early belief in polygamy.  This schism dogged Mitt Romney's presidential campaign to the point that Romney, like JFK, had to give a speech in which he laid out his beliefs.

When World War II came along, Japanese-Americans were treated a lot differently from German-Americans, although we were fighting against both Japan and Germany.  Why?  Well, I suspect that one reason is that the vast majority of Germans are white – and Protestant Christian, and they were anti-Jewish, just like a lot of Americans.  Japanese-Americans, on the other hand, were of a different race altogether, and many were Shinto or Buddhist.  

With the war in Southeast Asia, Vietnamese refugees began to arrive, followed by Cambodians.  Then Hmong refugees from Laos began to pour in from the refugee camps set up in Thailand, just across the border.  (In fact, Thailand did a land-office business in refugees: they also hosted separate refugee camps for Cambodians, since they shared a border with that country, as well.)  Like earlier immigrants from Japan and China, the Vietnamese, Hmong (a separate ethnic group from Laotians) and Cambodians were not terribly well-tolerated here in the United States, not only because of their race, but because the vast majority of them were not Christian. 

Somalis flocked to the United States in droves in the 1990s after the outbreak of civil war in their country.  Certainly, not all of them are Muslim, but a vast majority of them are, and their belief in Islam is what has kept them apart from "mainstream Americans," especially since the 9/11 attacks in New York City.  

The social fallout from those attacks here in the United States has made life hell for followers of Islam or in fact anyone with dark hair and complexion who might even remotely be Muslim.  A lot of Christians like to talk about how they have been persecuted in the past, but they haven't got one thing on the Muslims in the United States after 9/11.  At least the Muslims weren't put in concentration camps, the way Japanese-Americans were, but other than that, they have a lot of stories to tell about being thrown off airplanes, being denied service at places of business, and various other social snubs.  Feeling against Muslims has run so high that there are those who hate President Obama, not only because he is black, but because his father was born into a Muslim family (although the father reportedly was not a practicing Muslim, himself).  His mother and maternal grandparents, who raised him, were Christian, but apparently that doesn't count, even though Obama only met his birth father one time in his life!  Obama is Christian, but because he separated from his home church in Chicago for political reasons, he has been labeled an unbeliever by many conservative Christians.

My own religion, Eckankar, has had to tread on eggshells since 9/11.  Our main Temple of ECK, located in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a western suburb of the Twin Cities, decided to fly the American flag 24 hours a day right after 9/11.  We used to fly it during daylight hours when the Temple was open, but after 9/11, we installed lighting so that the flag could be flown continuously.  Why?  Because in this country, non-Christians are now thought of as synonymous with terrorists, and people who are afraid of terrorists are prone to emotional, knee-jerk reactions.  A "shoot-first-ask-questions-later" mentality.  (And yes, the Temple of ECK has had bomb threats.  Not from Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists.  From Christians.  Only from Christians.)

In the last few years, Christians have been talking a lot about non-Christians "waging war against Christianity."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is that the Christian majority has, throughout the history of this country, more or less crammed their religion down everybody else's throat, at least in public.  A display of a Christian nativity scene on the lawn in front of a public building doesn't upset the Christian majority, but what if it were a Jewish disply, a Buddhist display, or – heaven forbid – a Muslim display?  That would draw quite a bit of ire.  But these same people can't figure out why a Christian display is upsetting to adherents of other religions!  Rather than a "war on Christianity," what is happening nowadays is that the members of non-majority religions are standing up for their rights.  And what are those rights?  Why, the right to meet in a group and the right to worship as they please.

And let's not forget those who espouse no religion, whether they are agnostics or atheists.  If believers in God have the right to worship, non-believers should have the right not to worship, and yet many of them can tell stories of unpleasant social encounters with believers, Christians, in particular.

According to PEW Research, 78.4% of Americans are Christian.  That includes mainline Protestants, members of historically Black churches, Evangelicals and Charismatics, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.  (That's enough to start World War III, right there.)  

4.7 of Americans are of other religions: Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and other, including Jews for Jesus, etc.), Buddhists (Zen Buddhists, Theravada Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, and "other" types of Buddhists – bet you didn't know there were so many kinds!), Muslims (Sunni, Shia, Sufis, etc.), Hindus, Zoroastrians, Jains, Unitarians, members of New Age religions (such as Theosophists and Rosicucians and believers in the New Thought movement), Secular Humanists, members of Baha'i Faith, and ECKists (members of Eckankar).  Included in this number are also pagans, pantheists, Wiccans, Druids, and splinter Mormon groups, as well as the various forms of Native American spirituality, including members of the peyote religion, known as Peyotists.

Then there are those who are unaffiliated with any particular church – 16.1% of all Americans, including agnostics and atheists.  And there were 0.8% who said "I don't know" or who refused to answer the question.  

So, OK, by sheer numbers, Christians are in the majority, but according to the Constitution, the United States is not a particularly Christian nation.  Americans are getting a little better at practicing separation of church and state, but we are still woefully imperfect in our social practice of religious freedom.  We could actually take some notes from the Egyptian Christians and Muslims, many of whom have gone to great lengths to protect and defend each other's right to worship.  Religious tolerance is not necessarily a comfortable thing, but it is a necessary thing.  :-/

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