I don’t believe in religion, but I do believe in religious freedom and religious tolerance. That doesn’t mean I am innocent of irascibility when it comes to my attitude about religion. I have all manner of opinions on the subject, but I find myself in the same position I imagine John Adams (also irascible) found himself in when he observed the Jesuits were coming to our newly founded republic.
I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.
Regardless of his attitude about Jesuits and Catholicism in general, Adams recognized that the higher morality, if you will, was in respecting the foundational policy of tolerance regardless of how he felt about Catholics as a group. I have a similar attitude regarding right wing Christianity. If there was ever a group that so deserved the fires of hell it is the so-called religious right in the United States, a most perverted form of Christianity spewed from pulpits and talk shows. Fortunately, for them Hell is a mere myth and in the end they will be worm food like the rest of us.
The first amendment protects these evangelical Christians as much as it protects the rest of us, which is a good thing. While I might be persuaded to adopt an attitude of tolerance because of the ethical value of such a position, if the first amendment weren’t in place I might find myself trying to ban this pugnacious expression of monotheism on the mere principal that everything about it is anti-human. I hold no starry eyed idealism that the right wing would not respond in kind if they were given just half a chance. In fact they have been doing so for years. All is fair in love and war…and in America, it seems, we have always been at war internally over ideology.
Frankly, the Christian right has been trying to silence humanist and freethinking voices since the beginning of our nation. The life of Thomas Paine – a pivotal thinker behind the revolutionary idealism of our country – demonstrates this. The religious conservatives have always infected every attempt to live a life of healthy reason. When they aren’t trying to get congress to pass laws enacting national days of prayer and spiritual heritage weeks, all flagrant violations of the first amendment, they are rewriting history.
One of the all time great tall tales is that Thomas Paine recanted on his death bed. Given that he wrote The Age of Reason, his argument for a deist religion of reason, while imprisoned in the Bastille suggests otherwise. At the time Paine had every reason to believe he was to be executed. That he wasn’t is another story. He wrote cogently in the face of imminent death. Fortunately for him and for us he escaped this fate.
The greatest tall tale of the religious right, of course, is that the United Sates was founded on the Christian religion. An intelligent reading of American history and the men who created our nation will prove otherwise. The American Revolution was not a peasant’s uprising. It was a carefully thought out, but otherwise do or die gamble of our nation’s intelligentsia and wealthy class. They were men profoundly affected by Deism, Freemasonry and the philosophy and worldview of the enlightenment. The ideas of John Locke had more to do with the founding of our country then did the bible.
Yet, it would be dishonest to deny that Christianity is part of our intellectual history in the West. Religion has played a role in the development of morality and our legal system. However, it is not as major a role as the religious right would have you believe. The fact is that our nation was birthed into a world where every conceivable religious notion of the time was being challenged. The United States was the first nation to attempt a total secular nation that did not choose sides along the lines of a particular church.
The American Revolution was a revolution of ideas. It was not about a peasantry not getting the basics, but about an elite group of politicians, property owners and thinkers who believed that “taxation without representation,” was only the beginning of the problem and that a person should be free to determine the course of their own life unhindered by King or Priest. In order to do this a secular nation was created and an attitude of tolerance was guaranteed.
John Adams understood what so few of us in this country do today. Freedom does not come without a heavy price and in order to ensure my personal freedom I must ensure the freedom of all. Many of those who arrived on our shores in those early days were escaping religious and political persecution. That is the situation that many still find themselves in today when coming to the United States. Very little has changed it would seem in 235 years. Our nation’s founders understood, at least intellectually, that we could not create a republic based on civil liberty while denying it to others. That we have not always done so speaks more to the imperfection of human nature and our difficulty in rising to our highest standards than it does to the failure of the idealism. This is an argument that, no doubt, could be used in defense of Christianity as well.
I believe we will arrive, however, imperfectly at some point. But, that is provided that we zealously guard our constitutional separation of church and state from those who would deny it. Tolerance is misunderstood. It is not weakness or permissiveness. Tolerance is not agreement. At best, in country such as ours, it’s an agreement to disagree and to argue, fight, cajole and compromise with each other as we work toward achieving the idealism in action sought by our nation’s founders. Tolerance is allowing others the same liberties as you yourself enjoy.
The biggest problem with the thinking behind the reactionary zealotry of the Christian political movement is the mistaken belief that you can create a safe world. Liberty and safety do not always go hand in hand. There exists at all times threats to our way of life. But, we can’t protect ourselves from them by attacking the fundamental principals of civil liberty. We can’t create and enforce racially motivated immigration laws or force one set of religious beliefs on the citizenry. We have to accept that tolerance and liberty are inseparable.
Tolerance doesn’t mean letting people get away with acts of terrorism. But, it does clearly understand the difference between xenophobia over the things such as the so-called Ground Zero Mosque and a terrorist cell plotting against innocent people. We can’t allow the horrible events of September 11 turn us into a nation of bigots. It is a risk choosing to live in an open and free society. That some will misuse their civil liberties and harm others is a given. That is what a solid justice system is necessary. It is reasonable to take precautions to ensure the lives and safety of our citizens we can not do it at the expense of civil liberties.
On a final note this is where my challenge to be tolerant gets dicey. The reactionary and ultra nationalism of the religious right is leading us toward a dangerous neo fascism that must be challenged on every front. The agenda of the religious right is nothing more than a perverse political ideology disguised as Christianity. It seeks to limit the civil liberties of all according to their narrow worldview.
 From a letter by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, May 5, 1816