The Common Good

Amy Sullivan: But Whose Religion?

I was setting out to write a post about a little-noticed agreement reached by congressional Republican negotiators last week. The arrangement removed a harmful legislative provision that would have allowed military chaplains to offer sectarian prayers at public ceremonies in exchange for striking down religious freedom guidelines developed in the wake of concerns that religious discrimination is taking place at military academies (particularly the Colorado Springs-based Air Force Academy).

But then I saw that Christopher Hitchens had already written a comprehensive essay about the deal on Slate, complete with historical background and everything. So I'll just commend to you Hitchens' essay, including with his observation that James Madison didn't even think it was necessary or appropriate to have military chaplains.

A brief note on a comment Hitchens makes at the end of his piece: "It may not be long now before we hear demands that Muslim chaplains be allowed to conduct separate (and perhaps sexually segregated) ceremonies in the ranks, and what I want to know is: What will our Christian, godly campaigners say then?"

One of the things that most bothers me about the positions many conservative Christians take on establishment issues is that they are informed by the arrogance of the majority. One of the brilliant aspects of the First Amendment is that it protects all religions, understanding that the majority today may be the minority tomorrow, and vice versa. The willingness to impose your religious practice and beliefs on others is usually accompanied by the certainty that you will never be forced to tolerate the same from another religious tradition.

Which is why I was so pleased to see this letter last year from an evangelical minister who changed his views on school-sponsored prayer after being stationed in Hawaii where most people are either Buddhist or Shinto. The pastor describes his extreme discomfort during a football game when the crowd was asked to stand for a Buddhist prayer, and the epiphany it caused him:

"We often advocate the practice of Judeo-Christian rituals in America's public schools by hiding behind the excuse that they are voluntary and any student who doesn't wish to participate can simply remained seated and silent. Oh that this were true. But if I, as a mature adult, would be so confounded and uncomfortable when faced with the decision of observing and standing on my own religious principals or run the risk of offending the majority crowd, I can only imagine what thoughts and confusion must run through the head of the typical child or teenager, for whom peer acceptance is one of the highest ideals."

I give this pastor credit for his bravery in admitting these views on the pages of WorldNetDaily. One hopes, however, that not everyone has to experience being a minority in order to understand the problem with imposing majority religion on everyone.

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