"Our religions," Newt Gingrich said, "I think we need to have a government that respects our religions. I'm tired of being lectured about respecting every other religion on the planet. I want them to respect our religions." These, unbelievably, are the words of a man seeking to occupy the highest office in our government, a man charged with defending the Constitution of the United States.
What are our religions? You can find someone from just about any religion you can think of in this country. Is candidate Gingrich actually suggesting that the faiths of some Americans are more worthy of respect than others?
Unfortunately, this is a theme we are hearing more and more from conservative leaders. Just this week, retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin got caught up in a controversy partly because of his view that Islam should not be protected under the First Amendment.
Americans of all faiths and beliefs should be concerned about this trend. The beauty of the First Amendment is that it does not play favorites. The idea that there are "our" religions and "their" religions is a threat to our democracy. Who will be "the decider" making that judgment and by what standard?
If defining "our religions" depends on tenure -- which religions have the longest tenure in this nation -- Mr. Gingrich may not be too happy with the results.
First, as a Roman Catholic, he would have had few peers in the colonies. Loyalists to the religion espoused by the Church of England -- Anglicans, or as most people now say, "Episcopalians" -- were dominant. For example, at the time, as a Baptist, my religion would not have been respected in the majoritarian mindset that identified "our religions."
To be more specific, many of my predecessors in the Free Church tradition, including the Baptist tradition in which Gingrich started, spent time in jail because they would not pay taxes as a prerequisite to preaching their gospel. Mr. Gingrich, whether as a Baptist or as a Catholic, would not have fared well in that environment.
The number of Catholics in this nation did not grow much until the 19th century. Even then, that growth evoked fear among many Americans that this hierarchical religion would be a danger in this land. Jews have had a significant presence in this land since colonial days, the earliest Jews arriving in the mid 1600s. Puritans were prevalent. But, honestly, Puritans would have had big problems with Mr. Gingrich. Likely, he would not consider them among our (his) religions.
Perhaps Mr. Gingrich's problems with the First Amendment's provisions for all religions and no religions can be traced to his lack of appreciation for the Deism to which Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were adherents. Who knows? This much is for certain: What many people consider this nation's greatest contribution to the world -- religious freedom as defined in the United States Constitution -- Mr. Gingrich considers a problem that he wants corrected. And no wonder. He imagines a "war" on religion as he defines it. How sad that he uses such an extreme word to describe freedom in this nation and, by the use of that word, insults people around the world who actually are losing their lives rather than deny their religions.
While Mr. Gingrich says he is tired of "being lectured about respecting every other religion," I am tired of politicians aspiring to leadership positions in our government who do not recognize that our government's neutrality toward the propagation of religion has contributed to the vitality as well as the diversity of religion in this land and saved us from the religion-based conflicts, often violent and sometimes fatal, experienced in other lands. All of our religions deserve respect, understanding and freedom as do all of our citizens, religious or not. That is the solid constitutional foundation for the nation that Mr. Gingrich wants to change if given an electoral endorsement to govern.
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