Apparently, attempts are underway to open a new front in the supposed "war on religion" in my home state of Louisiana as it takes center stage in the presidential primary season. Truth be told, from what I have seen lately, those claiming there is a war on religion are the ones most guilty of waging that assault.
With sadness and disbelief, last weekend I watched as Greenwell Springs Baptist Church pastor Dennis Terry introduced presidential candidate Rick Santorum at his church. Terry believes -- incorrectly -- that America was founded as a Christian nation and that those who don't agree with him should "get out." I have been a Baptist my entire life, and I have been a minister for more than 50 years -- the last 20 in a church in Monroe, LA. I can tell you without question that Pastor Terry's perspective is not authentic to the historic Baptist tradition. Indeed, I fail to see how it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus who invited all people into his presence.
The reality is that Pastor Terry's perspective, though terribly troubling, is not unique to him. Unfortunately, such vicious and exclusionary rhetoric has become widespread across the more conservative branches of Christianity. Equally disturbing is the fact that a candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination would embrace this point of view. No doubt Rick Santorum is a conservative Republican who relies much more on religious rhetoric than I would like any candidate for public office to do, but until now I had not seen him associate himself with a perspective that tells people who do not hold his view on religion to "get out" of the country. Whether or not Mr. Santorum knew what message Pastor Terry would convey in his introduction, he in the end provided a platform for a discriminatory and close-minded perspective inappropriate for anyone wanting to serve as president for all Americans.
The Republican Party has long claimed to be a big-tent party with room for all and an appreciation for different points of view. It is an idea that many have been suspicious of for a while, for good reason. But this week I was reminded of what none other than Senator Barry Goldwater had to say in 1981: "I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A,B,C, and D. Just who do they think they are?"
No one will ever confuse Goldwater with a liberal. He was, in many ways, the father of the modern conservative movement, and yet he understood the danger of applying a religious test to public office. Where are the leaders of today who are willing to stand up and say: "I am a person of faith, but I will not dictate what yours should be. I am a national leader, but I will not use my office to codify my religious doctrine and further divide this nation."
I have learned by personal experience lessons that motivated the founders of our nation to make a provision of religious freedom a part of the United States Constitution. Historically, institutional entanglements between religion and government have hurt both, though religion typically has been hurt much more than government. Religious people do not need the government telling them how to manage their faith any more than governments need religious people attempting to use the machinery of democracy to advance their particular sectarian theology or morality.
Let's move past the idea that opposing the imposition of one set of religious doctrines on the rest of society is a war on religion. Let's move past the idea that asking people to follow the laws of our democratically elected government is somehow a challenge to religious freedom. Let's move past the idea that the fact that a majority of Americans are Christians somehow makes this a Christian nation. Instead, let's celebrate the diverse nature of faith in this country that has thrived in large part because of the religious freedom guarantees in the First Amendment.