Herald Journal Columns
Feb. 13, 2006, Herald Journal
Pastor's Column

Religious freedom best expressed in individuality

By Pastor Bill Baldwin, Prairie Community Church, Lester Prairie

There is recurring debate about whether the Pledge of Allegiance should continue to include “under God” in its recitation. As most of us know, it wasn’t originally there when Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892.

Actually, the pledge changed and evolved quite a bit over the years. It wasn’t until 1954, under the pressure of the Knights of Columbus, that the words “under God” were added, as we have them today.

Should we have the words “under God,” even though some, if not a significant number of Americans, do not believe they are under God?

We could further ask questions like “which God?” and “whose God?” Is it the God of the Christians, the Muslims, the Native Americans, or whose? Is everyone talking about the same God when they say “under God,” or do we get to decide what it means for us individually?

Hopefully, as long as the words are in the pledge, every American will have the freedom to determine individually what the words “under God” mean to them.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Sorry, folks, but we are not a Christian nation and never have been. Our US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Amendment 1, simply says that the government will not establish a national religion, but that individuals are free to form groups and meet freely.

That is the freedom that has allowed religion, Christian and otherwise, to flourish in numbers and diversity throughout the course of American history. If we vote to limit the rights of any one religious group, we are threatening the liberty of all religious expression.

I am a huge supporter of the separation of church and state as stated by the constitution, but not of how it has been interpreted by some folks.

It never says in the constitution that religion can’t be taught in schools, or that religious ideas can’t be shared in the course of teaching various subjects. As long as the government isn’t backing and funding a particular religion, and saying that to be a citizen is to be a member of a particular religious belief or group, then religion can be tossed around within education in many ways.

I deeply disagree with much of the “intelligent design” folks and the “creation science” folks, but why not have their ideas out there and available in the educational mix? The more ideas, the merrier.

If a public school ever said “this is how you must believe to be accepted in this school, this city, this country,” it would be a grievous breach of American liberty. Freedom from religious affiliation is every bit as important as the right to whatever affiliation a person chooses.

I must express concern here over any religion that sees violence as a way to deal with those who disagree with them. I would grant the right of any “peaceful” religious group to exist and attract members who come to it freely.

I would strongly oppose any religious group in America that would ever set itself as “the one true belief” and forced people to join the group or face hardship, punishment, or death. Without naming names, there is a religion or two growing in numbers in our nation that could pose a threat to American liberty as we know it, and to human rights for certain people if they gain enough power.

I do believe the Constitution, if upheld and preserved as is, protects us from any religions dictating how any American chooses to live.

American religion has always gained converts and members through either natural connections of ethnicity or belief, and in recruiting new members, has used mostly “gentle persuasion,” to quote the title of an old song, to help people see why joining their group might make sense.

I am the biggest promoter out there of the blessings of being part of church. I have known many blessings by growing up in the church, being an adult lay member, and now for the past 13 years as an ordained minister leading congregations.

Church is a great way to grow with God, to connect, to socialize, to find meaningful service, personal support, and so much more. All that said, I would never force or coerce anyone to be part of any church.

If a person doesn’t want what church offers, that is their free American choice. I, on the other hand, can continue to enjoy all the blessings of being part of a church that others pass by. I know what they are missing, even if they don’t, and don’t want to know.

I would never judge or think less of someone who chooses to remain unconnected to a church. God gave us free will to do as we choose, and to choose God through fellowship in a church is a very personal choice that God would never foist upon anyone.

God only wants those who see the blessing in following a path that leads to greater life. May every church out there love who they are and boldly go about being the church in their own unique way.

May every church be a beacon of hope and peace and acceptance to those who are ready to connect.

And may all those out there who are searching for something to make sense in life, find a church that welcomes them with open arms and allows them to grow at their own pace.

In closing, I recall my years at a church-owned-and-operated radio station in Mason City, Iowa. I trained, scheduled, and managed all the volunteer community announcers.

It was a semi-religious station, designed to especially meet the needs of those who were confined to home. We came together from all our backgrounds including Lutheran, Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, Jewish, Latter Day Saints, Unitarian Universalists, a few Missouri Synod folk, and others I never categorized.

We all united in a mission to be a blessing to those who listen, through good music and inspirational moments.

We were a beautifully diverse and motley mix of people who just loved being together and serving together.

I think I naively go with the notion that churches could be like that together. Someday, perhaps?

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