FREEDOM OF RELIGION, FAITHFUL DISCIPLES, AND THE 113TH CONGRESS

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is one of 81 women in the new 113th Congress. She followed the custom of taking the oath of office with her hand on a sacred book. But in her case that book was not a Bible. It was her personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. Tulsi  Gabbard is the first Hindu member of Congress. The Iraq war veteran explained, (LINK) “I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country. My Gita has been a tremendous source of inner peace and strength through many tough challenges in life, including being in the midst of death and turmoil while serving our country in the Middle East.”

In addition to Rep. Gabbard, the 113th Congress also includes Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Buddhist  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI)., and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the first legislator whose officially-stated religious preference is “None”. A recent Pew Forum report informs us that the first Jew was elected to Congress in 1845, the first Mormon in in 1851 (from Utah, of course), and the first Sikh in 1957. For all these faithful servants let us thank our nation’s founders who declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

I doubt that the framers of the Constitution envisioned today’s religious and spiritual climate. They stretched their imaginations to include assorted Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Deists. But I’m confident our nation’s founders would look at this very diverse 113th Congress and say, “Yes! It’s working. Everybody has a place at the table. Everybody has freedom to practice his or her religion, even if it’s ‘none’.” They’d also recognize that making space for all interested parties is a constant balancing act, but one well worth the effort.

But not all our fellow citizens celebrate our nation’s spiritual/religious diversity. You may share my observation that some of our Christian brothers and sisters are among the least happy. They insist that this country was founded as a “Christian nation” and we’d better always do it that way—or else! This view seeks (futilely in my opinion) to portray our founding fathers as contemporary evangelicals. (Deists among our founding fathers included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.) While we do have prominent Judeo-Christian elements in our national background, that doesn’t make us “a Christian nation” by definition. [Detailed treatment of this issue requires another whole post—more likely a book!] The “Christian nation” myth conveniently ignores the religious diversity present at our nation’s beginning and ever since. It equates late 18th-century Christianity with late-20th-century conservative Christianity. Above all, it views today’s diverse spiritual/religious climate with a mix of denial, condemnation, contempt, and fear. Fear of the unknown future; fear of losing control; fear of opening the door even a crack to ideas that (in this view) are contrary to scripture or that “Christian nation” foundation on which our security supposedly rests.

By contrast, the Bible repeatedly has God telling us, “Do not be afraid.” The wonderful, fearful truth is that the USA in 2013 is a dynamic, rapidly-changing society. The First Amendment provides room for all of us. We can change or not, as we choose. But we must balance our own freedom of religion (and speech and assembly) with our neighbor’s freedom to think and act very differently. Christians no longer have a privileged place in the national religious landscape. The causes include social and cultural forces beyond our control; the church’s willful insistence on “doing it the way we’ve always done it”; refusing/failing to reframe our message and our practice in contemporary terms; and our laziness and carelessness in discipling ourselves, our children, and one another. Disciples don’t just happen. We learn to follow Jesus by watching and imitating other disciples in the family and the wider church community. Disciples grow best in small face-to-face groups. Acts 2- 6, the early Methodist movement, and the best of contemporary Christian small groups are among numerous examples in the history of the church.

“Do not be afraid” of our nation’s broad diversity reflected in the 113th Congress. Diversity is a source of strength in nature and in most social organizations. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 (about spiritual gifts) suggest it’s also a source of strength for the church. The First Amendment suggests it was viewed as a source of strength for our infant nation. It invites all of every persuasion to express themselves, allowing room for others to do the same. So let us who follow Jesus cultivate and express our discipleship as fully and faithfully as possible. Historically, that’s the course Christians in the minority have typically followed. More often than not, we’ve had an impact far beyond our numbers. Let’s be the most authentic, devoted Christ-followers and Body of Christ we can be in this diverse new world—and leave the rest to our God who is bigger than any idea or ideology.

 

10 Responses to “FREEDOM OF RELIGION, FAITHFUL DISCIPLES, AND THE 113TH CONGRESS”


  1. 1 Terry January 8, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Again you have stated so eloquently, we Christians aren’t the only ones of faith at the table. Our country is a melting pot in every sense of the word.

  2. 2 Kevin January 8, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 restricted public office to all but Protestants by its religious test/oath.
    The Delaware Constitution of 1776 demanded an acceptance of the Trinity by its religious test/oath.
    The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 had a similar test/oath.
    The Maryland Constitution of 1776 had such a test/oath.
    The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 had a test/oath that restricted all but Protestants from public office.
    The Georgia Constitution of 1777 used an oath/test to screen out all but Protestants.
    The Vermont state charter/constitution of 1777 echoed the Pennsylvania Constitution regarding a test/oath.
    The South Carolina Constitution of 1778 had such a test/oath allowing only Protestants to hold office.
    The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 restricted such office holders to Protestants.
    Only Virginia and New York did not have such religious tests/oaths during this time period.

    So were we founded as a Christian nation? Sort of looks like it.

    • 3 soulmanlv January 9, 2013 at 9:11 AM

      testsKevin,

      Thanks for your input. A first glance suggests we might have been a collection of Protestant colonies at this very early point in history. It is true we were a nation of mostly Christians. But when the colonies came together and wrote their constitution, the first item in the Bill of Rights was a statement of religious freedom. I don’t know the history, but someone must have started re-evaluating these state restrictions against the First Amendment. I can’t imagine these state tests being considered constitutional in this new context.

      • 4 Kevin January 9, 2013 at 12:03 PM

        I am not a constitutional scholar. My understanding is that some of these state requirements hung on for decades. The primacy and power of the Federal governemnt was not the same back then as it is today. The states were where real government was supposed to happen. Some folks believe that it should be that way now.

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  4. 7 Cheri January 12, 2013 at 9:11 PM

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  5. 9 befuddled2 January 23, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    Very good post. One small factual error though. John Adams was not a deist. He was a Unitarian. But that is a small quibble in regards to a well thought out and accurate post.

    As for as the states, they started to change their consistutions to be in line with the United States one over a period of several years. The rights in the Constituion did not apply at the state level and the states could pretty well do what they liked in that regards.

    I found it instructive on just how destructive that was in looking at the pre-civil war period. Since there was no right of free press nor freedom or expression or assembly in regards to the states the southern slave states outlawd any abolitionist literalture, speech, or organizations. Many served jail time or worse. A good book on this is “Bound for Canaan”. Can’t remember the author right now.

    After the passage of the 14th amendment the states were restricted in their ability to infringe on individual liberties just as the federal government was. Several of our founders wanted this at the beginning – James Madison being one such, He tried to pass an amendment to make the Bill of Rights apply to state government too, but it failed by just two or three votes if I remember right.

    Anyway, good blog.

    Oh, just FYI, I am not a Christian. However I am supportive of anything that makes a person more rational, reasonalbe, and accepting of other’s differences even while disagreeing with them no matter what their religious beliefs. That also includes my religious preference of atheism. Lot of work needed there too.

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