July 4th should remind us of the enormous freedoms we enjoy in this country, guaranteed by our Constitution. Among them, of course, is the right to worship (or not worship) as we choose.
Back when the United States was formed, 55 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Protestants, one was Catholic. Immigration dramatically changed America’s religious landscape. Today, Protestants account for only half the population, about a quarter are Catholic, and the rest includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and those of another (or no) faith. Figures are fuzzy, but an increasing percentage reply “none” when asked their religion, and perhaps 2-3 percent identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.
One of the more controversial questions persisting throughout American history is the relationship of church and state. Scores of issues have been raised, many going through the courts, many others yet to be fully adjudicated. Still hotly debated is the Supreme Court decision of a half-century ago that forbid collective prayer in public schools. In the other direction, this past May, on a 5-4 vote, the same court ruled that prayer could be offered by diverse clergy at meetings of town boards, a position supported by the Obama Administration.
Numerous other touchy issues are still being defined. Should, for example, a public school teacher be allowed to wear a large cross, a yarmulke, a Muslim hijab, or a Sikh turban in the classroom? Closing schools out of respect for minority religions is increasingly weighed. New York City, where 13 percent of the pupils now are Muslim, has decided to cancel classes on the two principal Islamic festivals. For many years, they have shut down for the Jewish high holy days. Will other religious minorities successfully seek the closing of schools when they have special observances?
Sometimes an issue is local. I recall that a church I served along the Connecticut shoreline had an automatic carillon that played hymns softly at noon and at 5 p. m. The neighbors seem to have enjoyed it, except one elderly man who loudly complained. He exhibited a fierce hostility toward any church. Fortunately, before the matter further escalated he moved away to live with a son. The congregation wanted the freedom to express its faith by playing the carillon.. He regarded it as invading and violating his personal space. Church-state questions can involve such a clash of rights.
An historic change was never experienced by millions of younger Americans. Some of us remember Sunday “blue laws”. In our small Vermont village the local pharmacy was open from 8 a.m. to Noon, where prescriptions, the Sunday paper, and ice cream were available. All other stores were closed. Not long ago, in 2012, Connecticut liberalized its policy on the Sunday sale of alcohol. Sometimes I wonder if the lid on commercialism one day a week wasn’t healthy. For one thing, it allowed thousands of store employees to spend Sunday at home with their families.
In the view of the Catholic hierarchy and many evangelical Protestants, the Obama administrative represents a threat to religious freedom. A major target has been Obamacare, which includes coverage of artificial birth control. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, recently found that ‘closely-held companies’ controlled, say, by a family with strong religious convictions - such as Hobby Lobby - do not need to provide birth control. Hobby Lobby specifically had objected to ‘morning-after’ pills and other methods that might induce abortions.
The Catholic Church firmly condemns artificial birth control in any form, of course, though polls show that a large majority of American Catholics ignore that teaching. Some even charge that the Obama Administration is anti-Catholic. In response, others point out that billions in federal funds annually pour into church-related institutions. For example, 65 percent of the annual budget of Catholic Charities has come from American taxpayers of all faiths.
Meanwhile, there continue to be efforts to drop “under God” from the pledge, “In God We Trust” from the currency, and “so help me, God” from the courts and the presidential inauguration.. Several patriotic anthems have come under fire. The chaplaincy system in Congress, the military, and elsewhere are criticized..
I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, we should strive to make those of all religions feel at home in America. On the other hand, should the large majority have to give up beloved community traditions and customs that go back generations? We’re all challenged to respect the differences among us. Look at the Middle East today to see where dogmatic and bigoted religious loyalties can lead.
Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is an author and retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.