Don’t Take My Religious Freedom!
[A speech I recently gave to my Toastmasters club in Huntsville, AL.]
Introduction: I am not a scholar of constitutional law. But I do believe in the values that this country was founded on. Because of persecution they encountered in Europe, the American colonists believed that people should be free to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience and understanding. They believed that they should not be compelled to attend any religious service or support any place of worship, or be deprived of civil rights based on their religious beliefs. These values are still important today.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
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.
A little while ago, I had an interesting talk with a fellow Toastmaster. It’s not uncommon for community clubs in the area to have an invocation – a prayer – at the beginning of their meetings. This particular Toastmaster said that he considered removing the invocation. But then realized that he shouldn’t be ashamed of his faith, so he left it as part of the meeting.
My first thought was that you should never be ashamed of your faith. These are deeply held beliefs, and they’re often central to who we are. But I said to him that this particular issue wasn’t about whether or not you’re ashamed of your faith. It’s about the fact that Toastmasters is an international club that welcomes all people. Should I assume that everyone in the room in a global club like this believes and worships the same way I do? Toastmasters is a club that is all over the world, and is participated in by multiple religions. Would Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, Atheists, and Jews feel welcome in a club that opened with a Christian prayer every time they met? Would I feel welcome in a club that prayed a Muslim prayer at each meeting? I might not come back, feeling this wasn’t the right place for me to be.
Fellow Toastmasters, as you realize by the title of this speech, I’m going to talk about a somewhat political idea. An idea that, as Americans, we find prodigiously important.
I’ve heard people say that we need to put God back in schools. That our culture has been suffering since we removed school-sponsored prayer from our public schools.
I was talking to my girlfriend, who’s Jewish, about this recently. I told her that I felt like this was wrong because we have freedom of religion. Because we all have the right to worship based on our own conscience. As soon as someone stands up in a classroom in a government-supported public school and leads the entire classroom in prayer, we take away that freedom. I said we assume that everyone believes the same way we do, and we essentially are forcing our belief systems, or religion on them. I couldn’t think of anything that went against the First Amendment more than that. It also means that everyone who pays taxes to support public schools are supporting a religion they don’t necessarily believe in.
But she said that the issue was bigger than that. I thought to myself, what could be bigger than freedom of religion? But because of her perspective, because she’s Jewish, she was able to bring up another point. A point that makes this go deeper – that it can have actual repercussions in kids’ lives.
She said, imagine the kids who might choose not to participate in a prayer simply because they have different beliefs. It’s hard enough being a kid. But when, for any reason, you’re made to be different; you’re made to be “other”; you’re stigmatized. This isn’t about one religion versus another – this is about growing up and being looked at as not the same as everyone else. Imagine the harm that can be done – by creating an environment that gives kids another reason to be labeled or singled out.
I have to be honest. That really resonated with me. I was the different kid. The weird kid. The picked-on kid. I was the scrawny little nerd in school. And sometimes I can still feel that. (Well, maybe not the “scrawny” part.) Kids are excluded, ostracized, bullied, and beat up for the most insignificant things. I know from experience. To bring something as personal as religion into the equation could heavily impact kids that are already treated with disdain.
But Jim, you might ask, weren’t all the Founding Fathers Christians? Aren’t we just practicing their values?
There is a lot of debate on that…but you have to remember that these men were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and a movement called Deism which is the belief in God based purely on reason and nature. That nature itself is proof of God’s existence, and that we can use our reason to come to a belief in Him. If you’re interested in the topic, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason is a seminal writing on the topic.
Thomas Jefferson loved the teachings of Jesus but questioned his deity. What’s been dubbed the Jefferson Bible is his attempt to remove the supernatural aspects of the life of Jesus – the virgin birth, his miracles, his resurrection.
According to Britannica.com
“Although orthodox Christians participated at every stage of the new republic, Deism influenced a majority of the Founders. The movement opposed barriers to moral improvement and to social justice. It stood for rational inquiry, for skepticism about dogma and mystery, and for religious toleration. Many of its adherents advocated universal education, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state. If the nation owes much to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also indebted to Deism, a movement of reason and equality that influenced the Founding Fathers to embrace liberal political ideals remarkable for their time.”
Now far be it from me to make any attempt to persuade someone to change their faith. The last thing I want to do today is impinge on anyone’s belief. Your faith is your faith. The right to worship the way we want is protected by our Constitution. I’m only suggesting that we help protect our religious freedom by ensuring that everyone else can keep theirs.
So my plea for you is to help us preserve that religious freedom. Remember that our country contains a lot of people with a lot of beliefs. If we want to respect them, we don’t need to exclude them. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray in public or express our personal beliefs. But maybe it does mean that in a government-funded system we shouldn’t be forcing people to pray with us at public schools, or single out people who don’t want to pray with a classroom, or pass laws that allow for religious monuments that match our personal belief systems to be set up on government property. And if I want to include everyone, I don’t assume that everyone in the room believes like I do.
It’s about respect. It’s about fighting for the same freedoms and same rights that our founding fathers fought for.