Near the banks of the Clearwater River in Idaho there is an earthen mound that members of the Nez Perce tribe, by tradition, believe is the center of the world, the place from which all people originated. It is unlikely that very many Nez Perce believe this is literally true but, even if they believed the myth with all of their heart and soul, they would find it impossible to impose their belief on the rest of the country. There are just not enough of them.
There are many more Muslims in the world and a fair share of them feel compelled to enforce their version of religious truth. The Taliban in Afghanistan, the army of militant Sunnis in Syria and Iraq and numerous radical, religiously motivated factions in other Islamic countries simply can’t stand the idea that other people may not see things the way they do. They are willing and eager to imprison and kill to enforce their beliefs.
In Uganda, political leaders who claim to be Christian think it’s perfectly fine to execute gays and lesbians. They are inspired by a narrow reading of the Bible and cheered on by zealots from the United States who think modern-day persecution of homosexuals is justified by a few passages taken from texts written in distant millenniums. Oklahoma state legislator Scott Esk has said “we would be totally in the right” to stone gays to death because that is what God desires. In the ranks of America’s religious right, Esk is more outspoken but not alone in his interpretation of Scripture.
Many people observe the world’s multiple sectarian conflicts and look back at the religiously inspired wars, pogroms and persecutions that have scarred history and conclude that religion is the source of most human misery. Really, though, religion isn’t precisely the problem. People who hold fervent beliefs and want to inflict them on everyone else -- they are the problem.
The United States is fortunate to have founding documents written by men who rejected the notion that any one sect or any religiously based government has the right to impose a particular set of beliefs on free people. Thomas Jefferson spoke for most of his compatriots when he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” That principle has kept the country open to a broad range of religious practices and, by law, safe from imposed religion.
With abortion rights being curtailed on largely religious grounds in many states, with traditional believers being challenged by the swift spread of same sex marriage and with the U.S. Supreme Court giving an exemption from federal laws to corporations that claim a religious belief, the debate over the role of religion in public life is utterly contemporary.
For the first time, we have one political party – the Republicans – whose prime spokesmen compete to identify with the views of religious fundamentalists who are the most solid base of the party. Among past and future GOP presidential candidates, few are shy about proclaiming their faith. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas hosts evangelical gatherings, former-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was a preacher himself and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum bases all his social policy prescriptions on his conservative Catholicism. There is nothing wrong with that – they are as free as any of us to believe what they want -- but it’s worth acknowledging that this is a new thing in U.S. politics. Before Jimmy Carter, it is hard to think of a serious presidential candidate, other than William Jennings Bryan, who was overt in his declarations of faith. Most kept it private, both because it was the common view that religion and politics did not mix well and because many of them were not especially religious men.
Jefferson is the one who proclaimed that a “creator” had endowed all of us with unalienable rights, but he is also the intellectual who created an edited version of the New Testament that whittled away all the supernatural elements. At the dawn of the republic, that sort of free thinking did not impede his political career. He might have a much tougher time today.