Bounty Of Beliefs

11/26/2010 07:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Give thanks for those who helped our cornucopia of faiths coalesce.

This week is a perfect time to express gratitude for everything we have -- and don't have. I particularly want to focus on the brilliance of separation of church and state that our foremothers and forefathers risked their lives to build. They fled religious intolerance so they could foist their own religion on others and kill people who didn't see things their way. OK, a bit of dark humor but nevertheless, how soon we forget how freedoms are won and freedoms are squandered... sometimes by the very same people.  

In my mind's eye, as I reflect on the people in my family and circle of friends who have gathered around a Thanksgiving table with me, I can -- no exaggeration -- identify people who are affiliated with the following faiths: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, Wicca, Quaker, Unitarian, Episcopalian, Christian Science, Ba'hai, Mormon, 12 Steps, Agnosticism and Atheism. These practitioners range from ultra-orthodox to lapsed to anti -- and everything in between. We all got along (and still do), although there have been a few arguments along the way which generally result in "Let's agree to disagree and not bring it up again."  

As a dear friend of mine once said, "Don't disrespect my wife or my religion." Hear, hear! And as I further reflect, the arguments we generally would engage in were not religiously based but politically tinged.  

A matriarch of a very close family recently passed away. I'm going to call her Bonnie. She was an ardent Christian Scientist. Bonnie's kids rebelled: not against her personally but against her religion. Now her offspring are either fundamentalist Christian or agnostic, while her grandchildren have embraced Orthodox Judaism, Islam and agnosticism. I see that as a miracle of grace, tolerance and generosity of spirit, although I'm aware there are those who find a family constellation like that appalling. What a great country!  

Bonnie and I used to engage in somewhat heated arguments, because, as a guide for her voting and opinions, she had embraced the politics of the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women for America, the brain-children (in my view, anti-brain children, but that's a whole other column) of anti-Equal Rights Amendment, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. What a perversion of the vision that Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, had for the role of women! What I tried to have Bonnie understand was that, as a Christian Scientist, she was working against her own interests by helping strict fundamentalist Christians reach for power. Did she not understand they were strange bedfellows? That they were advocating for women's second class status, antithetical to the gender equality of Christian Science? That if the theocratic Christians got into power, her religion would be at risk? I suggested that being a Christian Scientist in a "Christian" America would not be dissimilar to being a Scientologist in today's Germany: not tolerated! Or a Nichiren Buddhist in Southeast Asia (punishable by death). Or being a Christian in Iraq, or a Jew in Iran, or an Atheist in... You get the picture. It's excruciating -- and possibly fatal -- to be true to your religion (or lack thereof) in many parts of the world.  

Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The right to practice one's religion is a fundamental tenet of the UDHR. Article 18 of an abridged version specifically states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." The UDHR was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948, and reaffirmed by the governments of the world in 1993. And yet, we have a loud group in this country that is on the one hand screaming to get government out of our lives and on the other hand promulgating the idea of having a "Christian" government. Why is this such a disconnect for people?  

My religion is no one's business except my own. Period. I am forever grateful to my parents who sent me to Sunday school so I would not be ostracized in our small South Dakota community, but who also said, "It's OK if you don't believe what they are talking about. They are well-meaning. But we trust you to decide what you believe," or words to that effect. I even got kicked out of Sunday school when I sunk my teeth into some of the theology. When the teacher proclaimed, "The little black pagan babies in Africa will burn in hell unless we baptize them!"  

I was so upset at her preaching that I crawled under the table and bit her on the leg! So my relationship with organized religion has been a tad contentious from the age of 4.  

Separation of church and state is one of the major pillars of a democracy. Please do not take it for granted. Look around your tables this week and thank those of your friends and relatives who dare to be themselves, if they differ from you. It's a gift to differ. Amen.

P.S. Look around and see if there's a commemoration of Human Rights Day in your organizations on Dec. 10. Then go support it!

Note: This post appears both here and in my column in the November 24, 2010 issue of the Pasadena Weekly, for which it was written.