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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The True Meaning of Religious Freedom

The other day I wrote a post called "The Sensitive In-Law Post - Religion," and this morning, I received a thought-provoking comment on it from Aurora at The Midnight Sun. She commented on what a religiously diverse family I have. Quite frankly, it never really crossed my mind, and she doesn't even know that my religious ancestry is even more diverse.

The point is that Aurora, who lives in Australia, felt that it was unusual enough to make the observation. The thing is that my family is far from unusual in the United States. I'll give you an example. The small town I grew up in is predominately Catholic and my family is United Methodist. That said, our neighbors (who still live next door to my parents) are Roman Catholic. They are essentially extended family to this day. As Joyce (one the neighbors mentioned above) was our babysitter, we (my siblings and I) grew to love her and her husband Carl as adopted Grandparents (they are substantially older than our parents).

When I was a child, given that I'm the oldest child and my parents married quite young (my Mom was 21 and my Dad was 24 when they married in 1977; I was born in 1980), they still enjoyed a social life (whatever that means in a small town) on Saturday evenings. There was one issue. Joyce, the trusted babysitter, and her husband attended Mass with their two children most Saturday evenings. The solution was simple; Joyce simply asked my parents if they minded if my sister and I (my brother came along much later) went to Mass with them. My parents didn't care, and quite frankly, I learned a lot about the Catholic Church as a result. My Grandma found it quite amusing as many of her Catholic friends would comment on seeing her small Granddaughters in Mass on Saturday evenings. I'm bias, but I can't help but note that her friends mentioned how well-behaved and cute my sister and I were (just look at my profile picture; ha ha!).

The result was that I spent just as much time attending Catholic Mass as I did attending our United Methodist Church. As I was an intellectually curious child who loved watching the news, I couldn't help but here about issues between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Even at a young age, it hit home. How could there be any rift between our beloved neighbors, many of my classmates, and my family over religion? I didn't get it. Our Church and the Roman Catholic Church used to hold joint Bible Camp for kids during the summer. None of this would have ever happened in Ireland. Not only did it happen in a small town in Michigan, no one questioned any of this or found it strange. It would have seemed strange to question the connections between various Churches in such a small town, whether the Churches were Protestant, Catholic, or even non-denominational.

None of this even mentions the fact that I have several cousins (first, second, and third) who were and are Catholics as well. In fact, my Dad's maternal Grandparents were Eastern Orthodox Catholics from the Ukraine. Somewhere along the line, some of their children became Roman Catholics as a result of marriage, etc. My paternal Grandmother grew up Catholic, married my Grandpa Russell, who was the son of members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (I just found this out), and later became Protestant without ties to one specific denomination. Personally. I find her religious history fascinating. She is one who taught me my prayers as a child, and she has the strongest belief in God of just about anyone I've ever met. I believe that she is largely the reason why my family puts preference on belief in God rather than organized religion.

So what point am I trying to make? My point is this: Where else on Earth could all of this taken place out in the open, without fear of reprisal, retribution, or fear of being disowned by family? It is an uniquely American idea that religion is an intensely personal issue. I know many people who stress the fact that they want their children to come to conclusions on religion on their own. My parents, my Mom specifically, viewed things differently. It wasn't that they wanted their children indoctrinated into a specific organized religion, they simply wanted their children to have some idea of what organized religion offered. It was important to my Mom that her children had some religious education. My sister, my brother, and I were all confirmed in the United Methodist Church.

I know for a fact that it wasn't necessarily important to my Mom that we were Methodist, or even Protestant. I think that she had the idea that she wanted her children to be able to make up their own minds regarding organized religion when we were older. I thank her for that. Thanks to my parents' openness, I learned religious tolerance at a very young age. That said, she recently told me that she found it interesting that her daughters (again, my brother is still very young, 16) are choosing to spend their lives with men who don't have much use for organized religion either. It is interesting. We are following our parents' example, for better or worse.

When and/or if Brian and I have children someday, I want them to have religious education in both Catholicism and the United Methodist Church. If nothing else, I want them to understand their religious heritage. That said, I want them to use that understanding to better understand religious freedom, respect other religions, and better understand religious influence across the world.

The one notable exception to all of this is Islam. It saddens me to come to come to this conclusion, but I don't see how Islam can coexist with the Jewish faith and Christianity. For all of the rhetoric of "moderate" Muslims, there is nothing in the Koran that calls for peace and understanding among people of all religions. Some may say that there are violent parts of the Bible too. That is true. However, from my standpoint, and the standpoint of millions of people, there is one big difference: whereas in the Koran there is only death and violence (it specifically calls for the destruction of non-Muslims), the Bible offers hope, peace, and redemption.


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