Freedom Of Religion: What Happened?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” —The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights

Freedom of religion.

This used to mean that every citizen had the right to her own beliefs in God. She had the right to choose her own church, and attend it freely. She had the right to pray to her own God, with no governmental inference.

This used to mean that every citizen had the right to belief in no god. She could not be compelled to attend church, or to pray to any god.

It meant that there was no State Church, no State religion.

When did it come to mean that the beliefs and practices of a faith held by a numerical majority of the country could be written into law?

When did it come to mean that the declarations of a religious system had to be given deferential treatment, that one’s faith held equal footing with science in the practice of medicine?

When did it come to mean that religious leaders held more sway with our government than its very own people?

What happened?

Church attendance has declined. Our knowledge of science has advanced. Technology has developed so quickly that our world has been changed dramatically. The power of the Church has been waning. It can no longer send armies to subdue heretics. Questions that humans have been asking for centuries are increasingly being answered by science. The Church is losing, every day, more and more, the status of having all the answers, to life, the universe, and everything.

It is no coincidence that religion is fighting for so hard now in this country what it fought against over two hundred years ago. They began fighting against it as almost as soon as they got it.

How I Left Christianity: Introduction

It has been several years since I left Christianity. It’s been a long journey–and an incremental one. After all, the church had been a very large part of my life for a very long time, socially and psychologically. Naturally, it wouldn’t be something that I could leave behind all at once.

Like I said before, the church was a very big part of my life. How big? Well, I began attending this church around the age of five. It encompassed the vast majority of my social life–most of my friends and mentors attended. I spent a great deal of my time there–several days a week, in addition to outside-of-church socializing and outings with members of the church. It influenced my development–I learned many skills while there, as well as it having a huge influence on my morals and ethics. Church taught me a lot of things about the outside world–framing current events into a Christian worldview, influencing how I’d react and process the world for years.

There were many events, learning, and people who contributed to my decision to leave Christianity. I didn’t meet these people, learn these things, and experience everything all at once. As each of these things happened, it moved me one step further away from the church. Like I said, it was a long journey, and it’s one I want to share. But it’s far too long of a story to put into one post, so I’ll be sharing, but one experience, one piece of knowledge, one person at a time.

Some quick background:

The church was small–less than a hundred members. My parents had been married by the pastor, and my aunt, uncle, and cousin attended this church. The church community was pretty tightly woven–it was a close community, but there were power differentials–wealthy members, deacons, members with many relatives attending, and influential community members had much more influence and authority than those without those things.

This church’s chosen methods of recruitment and fundraising *cough* was through musical productions, and Vacation Bible School (VBS) for children. Also, food. This was a Southern Baptist church, you see, and Southern Baptists will have food at every possible church activity. People jokingly tossed around the phrase “Baptists eat like Catholics drink.” I find it a rather apt and useful descriptor here. Eating was the main social activity, or “fellowship” at this particular church.

In the next post I’ll write about the events that started it all.

What I’m Reading

I thought I’d share what my reading list has looked like recently:

Reading Now:

Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party by Max Blumenthal. This is a Kindle book. It’s a recent history and analysis of the Republican party. Very interesting so far–I’m 33% of the way through it.

Into the Storm: A Study in Command by Tom Clancy with Ret. General Fred Franks, Jr. This is a second read-through for me, though it’s been about eight years. My copy is in paperback. It’s a thorough look at the first Gulf War–events, strategy, and leadership, as well as a sort of biography for General Franks, who commanded the main force that pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait. I remember liking it a lot the first time around, and I’m interested to see how much more I’ll understand with several years of Civil Air Patrol and two years of Army ROTC under my belt. On page 44/688

Read Recently:

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. This is a Kindle book. I’d heard this book mentioned numerous time at No Longer Quivering, so I decided to check it out. I’ve been a regular reader of NLQ for quite some time now, along with the blogs of several of the contributors there, so I’m familiar with the movement. This book, however, interviews those still in the movement as well as those who have left it–a valuable insight. Definitely recommended.

Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer. This is a Kindle book. Carolyn Jessop was born and raised in the FLDS, the Fundementalist church of Latter-Day Saints, an extreme Mormon cult that practices arranged marriages and polygamy. She tells of her life in the cult, as well as her successful attempt to escape with her children. She was the first to escape the FLDS with her children, and retain custody of them. This book is recommended, especially for those who are interested in the way religion interferes with government in the United States.

Triumph: Life After the Cult–A Survivor’s Lessons by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer. This is a Kindle book. Carolyn writes of her family’s adjustment to life outside the cult, as well as giving advice to other women who want to escape from a cult. She also writes of the FLDS’ move to Texas, the raid of the cult’s ranch, and Texas’ failing at removing the children from its custody and connecting/assisting women who wanted to leave. Recommended, especially if you read escape.

On my reading list:

The Whip by Karen Kondazian

Should You Base Your Support on a Candidate’s Religion?

Earlier today, I was thinking about a question I’d like to ask some of my Christian friends:

“Should a Presidential candidate’s religion really be a factor when deciding who to support?”

My answer? No–one should not base one’s decision on a candidate’s religious beliefs. But then I turned the question around: Should I choose a candidate based on their identification as a feminist?

That was harder for me to answer. There is, of course, a difference between the two identities. Feminism is not a religion–it’s a set of ethics, a political ideology based in equality. Religion is based around one’s beliefs in God, or gods, and the afterlife. Ethics are a part of religion, but they are not central to the identity.

There is another difference–in American politics, a candidate isn’t viable unless they identify with a particular religion: Christianity. Not so with feminism. In fact, it is likely that a candidate’s feminism would interfere with their viability.

I would dearly love to have a feminist President–however, I cannot base my support on a candidate’s identification with a certain group. I certainly couldn’t realistically, since there are so few openly feminist politicians in the first place.

When it comes down to it, the identification isn’t what’s important in a candidate. A person’s ideology could be feminist without that person adopting the label, after all. (That would be another difference from the religion question.)

What’s important is the candidate’s position on policy issues, their beliefs on the purpose and scope of government, and their ethics.

That’s what makes so much of the primary races so troubling–too little focus on policy, and a lot of the candidates’ various Christianities, whether they’re the right “kind” of Christian, and the degree to which those Christianities influences their daily lives and their policy positions.

Confession: I Was One of Those “Christians”

I have a confession to make.

I was a Christian. A fundamentalist, evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian.

I will say that Christianity and Christians hurt me, but I also hurt others.

I am guilty.

I left behind those beliefs and stopped committing those actions many years ago, but in all of those years since, I carried a burden of guilt. The girls in that church, they were my best friends. I loved them. We spent so much time together–phone calls, church activities, sleepovers, and various outings.

Then, one day, it all came crashing down. One of the girls announced she was pregnant. She was fourteen years old. How did we respond?

We called her slut. We shunned her. We demanded she repent. We told her she betrayed us. She was made to stand in front of the entire congregation and apologize for having sex and becoming pregnant. We were drunk in our self-righteousness and our purity. We did not stumble as she had. She was a sinner. We were not. Or rather, we were not as big as sinners as she was. We were only sinners in the way everyone was. We were Good Christian Girls.

Eventually, she left the church. I cannot speak of others’ actions here, but when she left, she was gone. I did not call. I didn’t attempt to contact her in any way. I left one of my best friends out to dry–to suffer alone. I inflicted pain and suffering on her. Five became four. We said horrible things about her behind her back.

Soon, things came crashing down upon me, and I too left the church. I took a long, hard look at myself, my beliefs, and my faith, and I cast it out with the trash. I wanted nothing to do with such hatred, hypocrisy, and cruelty. I began a journey, a spiritual one, to learn, to ask, to find out in my words, “what I really believed.” It was a long process, and a story to be shared at another time.

But I did not, in all of this, reach out to this girl, one of my very best and dearest friends. At first, I was consumed by my own problems. But as the days, weeks, months, and years passed, she came to mind more and more often. I realized how awful it was, what I did to her. I realized what a horrible friend I had been. A terrible sister. How selfish. As I discovered feminism, I learned more and more just how fucked up what I had done had been.

I started to wonder how she was, but I was so ashamed of myself that I did not take that step to call and ask. I hoped she was happy. I hoped she was thriving, that her child was happy and healthy. I hoped beyond hope that she had found friends who loved her, who fulfilled her, who were loyal and supportive and true. I wanted to be her friend again, but I thought that I was undeserving. I let too much time pass. My transgressions were too great. I didn’t deserve her friendship.

Then, facebook. I added another friend from my church days–a boy who had also left. I knew his story, and I wanted to catch up with him. We were fellow rebels. He was the only one, in the entire church, who had stood by her. I was glad that he did, that she had someone who had turned out to be a true friend. When I saw their interactions on facebook, I envied their friendship, their closeness, and inevitably, I felt a surge a guilt anew for failing to be what a Best Friend should be.

I was overwhelmed by guilt and shame, yes. But I was also afraid. I knew that I owed her, at the very least, a very big apology, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I was afraid of what she would say and how she would react. I knew that whatever she said–if she chose to react with anger, and throw any and all manner of verbal invective my way, I deserved it. And if she chose to forgive? If she wanted my love and my friendship? I could barely stand to think about it. I didn’t deserve that. She was stronger than me. She was a much better person than me.

I knew also that I was going overboard with my guilt. I should get over it. I should just apologize. I shouldn’t keep dwelling over the past. I should do the right thing, and move on with my life like I hoped she had. One day while sitting with my computer, I took a breath, and sent her a friend request on facebook. I’d wait and see.

A few days later, I realized she’d accepted it. Whoa. This was a huge step for me. I hungrily read her most recent statuses, eager for news that she was doing well. It seemed so. Good. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I didn’t know what to do. She was happy, from what I could see. She didn’t need me dredging up the past with all its painful memories. Finally, I broke down and talked to Momma Beemer about it. We sat on the back deck of my older brother’s home, smoking cigarettes, while I opened up about my feelings for the first time. She encouraged me to reach out to her. To apologize. It was the right thing to do–Momma Beemer was sure that it would help to heal old wounds, perhaps rekindle our friendship, and be there for one another like we once were.

Then, a crisis. My childhood and adolescent friend was having a rough time. I can’t describe what I felt at that moment, when I read her facebook note. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something, even if it was only to be an ear. But. I had to apologize first. Before anything else, I had to apologize.

I sat on my couch, with my netbook in my lap, and started to type. I wrote words and sentences, and then deleted them. I was going to do it. I was going to be honest. I was going to admit to her that I had been wrong, that I made a terrible mistake, and I had hurt her. I was sorry. I’m sorry. I poured out my heart in that message. I smoked several cigarettes while writing it. I cried. I let the tears fall, and I brushed them away so I could continue to write.

I hit send.

I spent the next few hours on pins and needles. I was anxious. I smoked more cigarettes. I tried to distract myself, but I kept clicking on the facebook tab and checking.

Then a little red one hovered over my message icon. I hesitated. This was it. Click.

Tears were falling down my face before I’d even finished reading her message. One hundred and fifty-seven words to say: she forgave me. I’d hurt her, yes. But she forgave me for it. She doesn’t hold it against me–it meant so much to her that I’d apologized. She loved me. She called me sister.

I wanted more than anything at that moment to jump in my car, drive to her home, and hug and cry and blubber.

We weren’t girls anymore. We were grown women. We’d lost years. I wanted yesteryear–to pack an overnight bag, sit in a basement on pillows and blankets, watch movies and giggle maniacally like we did so many years ago. I wanted to prank call the boys, sneak chips and coke, and sit in a circle and confide our deepest secrets to one another.

When I left that church, I left behind childhood friendships. I lost that connection you have with those you grew up with, who know you inside and out, your past and your present. Ever since, the friendships I have cultivated had known only of the past I had told them. I didn’t realize it, but I hungered for friendships that stem from a long past. I missed not having to tell friends of my past, of my family, of my history. I missed having people that knew all of that already.

We traded messages back and forth, and soon graduated to texts and calls. One night, I invited her to stay the night. It would be the first time we saw one another in years. When she arrived, she hugged me, and it was the best hug I’ve ever had. We sat on my couch and talked for hours. About everything. You remember when we ___? Yes!  And ___ said __? Oh man, that was funny. What happened after you left? (A lot.) Do you know ___ is married? Oh, fuck. Seriously? ____ won’t even look at me. Yeah, I don’t talk to them, either. They turn around and walk away when they see me. At ___’s funeral they pretended like nothing ever happened, like everything was the same.

We went out,  picked up our friend, and got something to eat. We teased one another about this or that, and laughed over old jokes and reminisced about our days together in church. How wild it is how different we are now. We joked about making a tshirt. We dropped him off and went back to my place. We settled down and watched a movie. It was so late.

It was better than I could have imagined.

We still have a lot to catch up on–so many years cannot be made up for in a single night. But I hope that we can continue to stay in touch, that we will spend more time together in the days to come, and learn more about the women we have become.

I regret those lost years. I regret that it took me so long to do the right thing, and I will continue to regret that I did not do the right thing in the first place. Bigger than all of that, however, is love.

I love you, sis.

Imam Yahya Hendi: America and Islam-Cooperation or Confrontation? Part 1

Recently, I went to see Imam Yahya Hendi speak. Who is he? You’re wondering. “Imam” registers—so he’s a Muslim cleric. Synapses fire, and all of your memories pop up, and every article and personal interactions (or lack thereof) are immediately associated with this word. He? It must be a he. Wait. She just challenged my assumption of this person’s gender, so it must be a she. Wow. A female Muslim cleric? Interesting. “Yahya Hendi.” Hmm. Not an Anglican name, so a foreigner. Wait. Another synapse fires. Maybe he’s not. Before any more synapses fire, you must know where he’s from.

Where is he from? (Yes, Imam Hendi is male. I just want to keep you on your feet.) He answered this question himself, during his talk: “I’ve been asked many times where I am from—I say from dust—as the Bible, Koran, and Torah says. We should act as if we are all fellow Dustians.”

We are all human. That is what matters. How important is it, really, that we know where on the global map one is “from”? My opening paragraph outlined what I assume will be the thought process for many who read this humble piece. Word association—we connect memories and knowledge with images, words, and emotions. It is the brain’s drive-thru in regards to learning something or someone new. Many times this is helpful. Often, it is not. Assumptions, it is said, makes a disagreeable donkey part out of you and me. Awareness of this is important, so we may know when it is appropriate to use this mental shortcut, and when it is not.

The title of Imam Hendi’s talk was “Islam and America: Cooperation or Confrontation.” I consciously use “talk” rather than “lecture” or “speech” because the heart of this appearance, and his mission, is dialogue between Islam and Christianity, Judaism, America, and everyone and every place within and in between.

Father Adam Bernell, of Bellarmine University, invited Imam Hendi to speak—the two worked together in Washington D.C. in 2001. The two worked to bring the community together after 9/11, and Imam Hendi had the privilege of being one of President Bush’s advisors after September 11th.

The Imam spent a good deal of time talking about faith. “Peace is essence of religion—love is the essence of faith—forgiveness is the essence of religion,” he says. He asked, “Are we willing to speak their language of inclusivity and love and compassion?” Are we? I pose this question to you. Let’s face it. The war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and much of the opposition to any Islam mosques or community centers is as much as, if not more so, about religious opposition than the 9/11 attacks. Many American Christians are quick to say it is extremists that attack women’s clinics and doctors that perform abortions, and that Christianity is a peaceful religion—but in another breath, are quick to condemn Islam for the actions of a few extremists. But Christianity is different from Islam, many have argued. Is it?

The Yahya Hendi says no. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are much the same. In fact, he told us, the Bible and Koran are 80% the same. The disbelief in the audience of mostly students of a Catholic university was palpable. Here’s an example—the story of Abraham. The story is featured in both the Koran and the Bible. Imam Hendi says they are 95% the same. The only difference? In the Koran, Abraham does not lie to the pharaoh—he does not say Sarah is his sister. Lying is a sin—and a prophet may not lie in the Koran.

Imam Hendi called on us to read the Koran—and I challenge you to do the same. It is easy to hate what you do not know. How much of our collective knowledge of Islam has been from our own pursuit of knowledge and understanding? How much of it was simply told to us by an authority figure and accepted as truth without checking for ourselves? Don’t chase after secondhand knowledge—what is told to us by preachers, the media, and non-Muslim authors. Read the Koran for yourself. It is a far more productive activity than burning them, I assure you.

As Imam Yahya Hendi said that night, ““We no longer live in our own ghettos.” It is time for us to stop acting as if we do—and start behaving like we’re living in a global community, where borders and differences are meaning less and less.