The U.S. has a religious population – 76% Protestant and Catholic Christian, 8% other and 16% no religious affiliation. The first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This country is unique. By its constitution it is secular, but it was founded in part by people seeking religious freedom. Further, immigration has brought people with many diverse faith beliefs to the country over the years. The country remains mainly Christian, but that encompasses many faith groups over a very wide spectrum, not the least of which is the spread from fundamentalist conservative to very liberal. In today’s society we experience activity and actions that are a clean benefit to a strong democracy as well as other activity and actions that degrade the functioning of our democracy.
Very fundamentally, organized religion has a demonstrated ability and history of building community. It brings people together to benefit themselves and others. In our discussion of American democracy this is a critical contribution. When people gather they share – experiences, problems, concerns, and joys. This is humanity experiencing its innate social quality. Among other things, it tends to build individual character and strength. It is also the basis of strong family relationships and builds character and values in our youth. This kind of community action is critical to healthy democratic function – “…of the people, by the people, for the people”. If and when it is magnified to higher, more encompassing levels, democratic governance tends to be efficient and fair. This type can and does happen independent of the specific faith and beliefs.
On the negative side extreme faith based actions can be detrimental. We have all heard or experienced some of these actions: climate change denial based on fundamentalist beliefs; racial or ethnic or gender based discrimination or even violence; abortion and family planning discrimination; and desecration of houses of worship to name a few. Every individual has a right to choose his faith beliefs and to join a faith group. In addition, everyone has a right to express his/her opinion about faith related social issues; in fact this expression is critical to the democratic process. Issues arise when an individual or group attempts to impose their beliefs on others via a subversion of the democratic process.
Looking to the future, it seems that several things are important:
- Support for any entity that builds “Community” is to be encouraged
- This support must be separate and independent of the religious or evangelizing function of the group
- Discrimination in the public domain (business enterprise serving the public or a governmental function) based on an individuals faith/religious belief must be prohibited
- Public funds can be used to support religious sponsor entities (schools, hospital, shelters, etc.) only if they are organized as a separate business entity without religious activity as a part of their charter
Religion has historically been a part of all societies. If totally separated from the democratic process it is a healthy part of our American democracy. You, as an individual, are free to the faith of your choosing. That said, you must not act in a way to force your beliefs on me – debate, discuss, yes; but force, no.