America is not a Christian Nation…Nor Should It Be

Several months ago, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the religious rights of businesses to refuse service to gay people. As I’m sure it’s no surprise, I do not think that businesses have the right to discriminate against anyone–for a host of reasons. My friend believes that the business owner’s religious morality should trump civil law in the case of Sweet Cakes By Melissa’s denial of service to a lesbian bride-to-be. My friend believes that forcing the business to serve the woman would open the door to religious discrimination.

For the record, I am not a Christian. I do, however, believe in the freedom of religion outlined in the First Amendment of our country’s Bill of Rights. While everyone knows about the protection given to those who practice religion, the lesser known part is the protection from the religious practices of others as well as the restriction of the government from favoring one religious belief over another.

The problem with my friend’s stance is that it comes from a view that Christianity is the default religion of anyone involved in this conversation. Aside from the obvious problem of Christianity not being the only religion around, it also fails to specify which version of Christianity is being adhered to as far as this conversation is concerned–and many like it to come, I’m sure.

My experience with religion began within the context of an Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian Church. On those Sunday mornings that our blue church bus would pick my brother and me up, we were conveyed to a local community center where we would receive our religious instruction in the center’s auditorium. It was there that I was taught that Rock Music was “music of the Devil,” our pastor telling us to destroy any and all albums and tapes lest we become corrupted by it. I was taught that the Bible was the literal and inviolable word of God and that the minister himself was the spokesman for the Lord.

This was in 1985 (a year after the original Footloose came out) and I was ten years old. It was also the year that I lost my faith. I remember the exact moment: the minister was telling us about the Devil’s Music and that anyone who listened to it was corrupt and sinful and likely to lead us straight into the arms of Lucifer. The disturbing part of that assertion was he was talking about my parents.

My father was a fan of Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Cheech & Chong, The Who and many other 60’s and 70’s era psychedelic rock groups. My mother, on the other hand, listened to Madonna, Prince, Teena Marie, Rick James, and a number of other artists who often sung explicitly about sexuality that fell firmly outside of our church’s moral mandates.

As a child, being told that your parents, the people who are supposed to love you the most in the world, were in fact leading you down a path to eternal damnation was frightening. More than that, however, it was contradictory and even my little kid’s mind called bullshit. The very week beforehand, the minister had discussed the Ten Commandments, in particular the one concerning the honoring of our parents. He told us that our parents were infallible, that they always had our best interests at heart and so our obedience to them was the best way to honor them. I remember thinking about the parents of my friends in my old neighborhood and wondering how you could honor someone who was capable of beating you with a belt in front of your friends on the front lawn. My parents weren’t perfect, but they didn’t do anything like that, so I gave the pastor the benefit of the doubt–until he started talking about how my parents were leading me to Hell via their music collection.

As you can imagine, that sort of spiritual disillusionment was devastating not just because I had lost God, but I had lost Him because He turned out to be a contradictory jerk. It took me nearly fifteen years to realize that it wasn’t God who let me down–it was the minister and all of his followers.

My belief and understanding in the Divine is much different than when I was a child, but that’s a good thing. My spirituality is more mature and ever evolving. And, while I am a Taoist now, my belief in a creative, loving force has recovered and strengthened–and has no place for hatred and fear-mongering.

My point in bringing all of this up is that not everyone’s experience with religion and spirituality is as tumultuous; indeed, many people are surrounded by loving, accepting people who just want to be good people and feel a connection to something greater than themselves. And a great many of these people are Christian. But they are also Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and so many more people than I can reasonably list. And then there are the Atheists and Agnostics who are no less important for their search for meaning outside a religious context.

My friend, who believes that it is just fine to deny a cake to a woman who was marrying the woman she loved, in my view, is wrong. She is not wrong for her religious beliefs; that is her right and I would defend that right even if she believes that I will go to Hell for my beliefs. Rather, she is wrong that her beliefs should be the law of the land when the land in question is the United States of America. Her beliefs assume that her religion is the correct one and the fact is, no religion can rightfully make that claim.

America is not a Christian nation, it is a nation that has Christians in it and, just like with race, we would be a much poorer culture without our signature diversity. And that is why we should not even try to be a Christian nation, because it would endanger the religious freedom (or even freedom from religion) of so many of our citizens. And that would just be un-American.

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