As a society we put a lot of emphasis on first words. "When, in the course of human events" is an oft-cited line. "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind," is another. And for you Charles Schulz fans - "It was a dark and stormy night." Parents hover over their young children, waiting with baited breath for the first words to come out of Junior's mouth so they can be immediately posted on youtube. What we say first can mean a lot. For example, my first word was "Yuck!"
It was a premonition of righteous disdain to come.
When the Pilgrims set out for the New World, they did so to flee the discrimination they faced in England against their religion. How apropos, then, that the first words of the enumerated rights that founded a country established (at least in part) as an escape from religious persecution should be: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
But Constitutional law hasn't kept and can't keep religion and politics from mixing in all kinds of ways, in the fuzzy gray areas of our national cultural and political life. It certainly hasn't prevented Americans from being suspicious about each others' religious practices and beliefs and from discriminating against one another for those beliefs as well. In the 1960 presidential election John F. Kennedy was faced with great suspicion because he was - God forbid! - a Catholic. This year we saw the ouster of Mitt Romney, a handsome and successful businessman turned governor, who presided over the state with the nation's first universal healthcare provisions and legal same-sex marriage from the Republican primary. And a good portion of blame for that ouster may be assigned to the fact that he belongs to a religion we call Mormonism.
Equally insidious are the insinuations floating around Senator Barack Obama, which suggest that rather than being a Christian who has attended services at Trinity Church in Chicago for over twenty years, he was in fact a Muslim! And by Muslim, of course I mean terrorist. Senator Obama has had to fight these denigrating rumors from the moment he announced his candidacy, and he has done so regularly, stating, "I pray to Jesus every night and try to go to church as much as I can."
But still the specter has remained. Much was made in this space and many others about Senator Hillary Clinton's "he is not a Muslim, as far as I know" comments last month. A distant cousin told me that Senator Obama was sworn in on the Koran. Oh really? I asked. Yes, she replied. The internet had told her so.
What WOULD Al Gore do?
The thing that has bugged me the most about this entire situation was summed up in a way I could never hope to match by the Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts back in January. The column was entitled, "Obama foes make appeal to ignorance," and essentially asked the question, so what if Obama were a Muslim? At the time I wanted to shout from the rooftops (or at least in David Axelrod's ear) that finally, someone had gotten it right! As far as I know, it's not supposed to matter what religion Barack Obama practices, as long as he is 35 years of age, a natural born American and has lived in the country for the past fourteen years. I waited in anticipation for agreement from the Obama campaign.
But Super Tuesday came and went, and the "I'm a Christian, I'm a Christian" protestations continued from Senator Obama. Eleven primaries were won and still questions lingered. "I pray to Jesus," he said. "Every night," he added. No mention of how it shouldn't matter whether he prayed to Jesus or St. Anthony or Ganesh or something/someone else entirely. And I understood. To admit that would let the bigots win. And by bigots, I mean terrorists. It was more important to have a President Obama, I supposed, than to have complete and full honesty about what exactly this country was founded on.
That changed this week.
As the New York Times' Caucus blog reported, Senator Obama said, "It's not just that I'm a Christian and some of these e-mails are misinforming people. They're also feeding on anti-Muslim sentiment and that's also wrong. We don't have a religious test in this country."
Hallelujah! Amen! Woot!
Another apropos fact -- on this date 244 years ago, the phrase "In God We Trust" was inscribed upon the currency for the United States of America. And you know what? Fine. I trust in my God, and you trust in yours. Whether that God or god be -- Yahweh, Christ, Allah, Zeus, Gucci, Mac or, in the words of Mariah Carey, the hero inside you. That's the beauty of America. We are free to establish our religions, and free to exercise them (assuming, of course, they do not inflict harm upon others establishing and exercising their own beliefs).
And to those of you who disagree, who are "feeding on anti-Muslim sentiment", I simply say, "Yuck."