*It’s been nearly two weeks since I sat inside a packed theater in West Hollywood, adorned in a chic pair of 3D glasses, watching the sci-fi blockbuster, Prometheus. And in an on-screen inquiry about faith in God, one of the characters responds by saying, “Because that’s what I choose to believe.”
Obviously the statement was meant to resonate with moviegoers for philosophical purposes pertaining to the film’s themes. However, it also prompted me to explore some of the recent backlash against President Obama from the religious community, deeming his personal support of same-sex marriage as “the great compromise” of religious values.
In the next several months leading up to the election – with the President’s religious faith now being called into question, and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism raising concerns for conservative Christians – the topic of religious faith will more than likely share the spotlight with more important issues like the economy and job growth. And that old adage about never discussing religion and politics in a public setting, well, that no longer applies in a country where religion is now a very public and polarizing issue within American politics.
Even as I began writing this post, I realized that I could literally find a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, several churches, a parish, a Kingdom Hall, and a monastery all within a 10-mile radius of my home. So I understand that religious diversity and religious freedom in America means: a zealot can declare hell and damnation through a bullhorn on a street corner; congregants in certain rural areas can handle snakes during worship service; people can show up on our doorsteps distributing bible tracts and spreading their message; a brother in a bow tie can sell us a bean pie and a newspaper regarding his religion; parishioners can flock to confessional booths to expose their darkest sins; young men in white shirts and black pants can peddle their bicycles on a mission to proselytize; fundamentalist groups can publicly assemble with picket signs to protest secularism; and makeshift altars of Buddha, Ganesha or Mary (mother of Jesus) can be found on display in homes and small businesses all throughout this one nation under God.
And with such a religiously pluralistic landscape in this country, the President – unlike religious leaders – has to remain objective and mindful that he cannot use the government or his authority as way to endorse, restrict or impose any particular religion or faith. At least for now, it still remains the constitutional right of each individual to choose their own set of beliefs with the guaranteed freedom to practice them.
As to which one is true or which one is false, well, all religions claim to have a monopoly on divine truth and morality, and most remain fairly hostile to any form of spirituality that differs from its own.
Adherents of most religions purport to be under attack by secular worldviews and “false” religions rejecting the “truth.” After all, only one can be the spiritually superior “chosen ones” on the right side of God’s will for mankind, right?
But it has been argued that all religions simply ask a different question and attempt to solve a different human problem, which could perhaps mean that all are merely a small piece of a much larger puzzle.
And while there are approximately 1,200 different denominations within the U.S., the exact number of religions is unknown. However, it has been commonly reported that at least 20 of the world’s major religions are represented within the U.S. And in our relentless quest for the divine, there’s no doubt that America is a hotbed for competing and conflicting religious views.
Although the idea of organized religion repels some Americans, religion is perhaps the single greatest influence in this country.
Yet still, I often grapple with the divisive role that religion plays in our society and with some of the questionable things that are done in the name of God. I’ve witnessed its blessings and its abuses, its tendency to heal and wound, liberate and oppress, honor and shame, embrace and exclude, and its knack for promoting faith while propagating fear.
Yet in all of its contradictions, we must understand that religious belief and the spiritual experience is deeply personal to the individual. Although religion is belief, not all beliefs are religious. Not everybody shares the same religious convictions. And the compulsion to subject over 300 million Americans to one specific religion or brand of theology seems more like a threat to our freedom of choice instead of what is now considered to be a “war on religion.”
President Obama may practice a more liberal form of Christianity, but he’s certainly not alone. More people are starting to either question, challenge or break away from long held religious views and traditions. For some of us, religion was simply thrust upon us by our parents or relatives before we could even make the decision for ourselves. And it’s certainly not easy to admit that we don’t fully subscribe to all of the tenets and teachings of our religion because we run the risk of being alienated from those closest to us or being labeled a heretic.
I personally believe that God is neither threatened nor offended by opposing views. Nor do I believe in the misrepresentation of Him as being some celestial bully trying to beat humans into submission and conformity. But I do believe that there needs to be some kind of interfaith exchange that fosters greater understanding of difference without people feeling the need to negate or attack the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs and personal convictions.
Perhaps it would be ideal if we all shared a common faith, then maybe there would be more unity and solidarity. However, that is not our reality in America. Our country is not a theocracy, it is a democracy. We don’t necessarily have to agree in order to show regard for religious differences. But if we can find a way to diminish our inclination to judge and prejudge, and extend ourselves beyond doctrines and dogma to draw upon the richest expressions of our humanity – compassion, empathy and understanding – then we can all rest in the of spirit of liberty that grants everyone the right to live and believe freely.
Dana Stringer is a freelance writer, playwright, poet and activist based in Southern California. You may contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/DanaLStringer.