Monday, September 4, 2000

Week of 09/04/2000

The Light And Dark Sides of Religion
- by David Matthews 2

"A man often preaches his beliefs precisely when he has lost them and is looking everywhere for them, and, on such occasions, his preaching is by no means at its worst." - Melancthon

There’s something missing from high school football… something that certain people seem to think is more precious than life itself.

What is it? Prayer.

Back in June, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that prayers at opening ceremonies of public high school football games violated the Separation of Church and State clause of the First Amendment. They believed, and justly so, that prayers over the school-operated loudspeakers constituted that school’s endorsement of a certain religious belief.

The decision is based on a lawsuit filed in Texas - a state where God and football are so closely intertwined that they refer to the Last Rites as the "Two Minute Warning." And no, it was not filed on behalf of some atheist or a believer of Wicca. The plaintiffs were a Mormon and a Catholic, living in a predominantly Baptist community.

Of course, the bible-thumpers and members of America’s God Squad HATE this decision. They hate it with a passion almost as fervently as they love football. After all, they don’t like being told that they CAN’T show their dominance in any community. I mean, what’s the joy of being a pious 800-pound gorilla if you can’t flaunt it? That’s like asking a politician to stop taking campaign contributions!

So the bible-thumpers are urging people to willingly violate the Constitution. They’re handing out prayer leaflets and asking people to loudly pray after the national anthem. After all, they can’t be stopped from praying!

Sadly, though, these bible-thumpers have it wrong. It has never been about prayer. It has been about their using their religious beliefs to dominate over others.

Meanwhile you have Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who wants to be the next Vice-President of the United States, talking about wanting to bring back religion into government, and constantly talking about his faith as an orthodox Jew. Lieberman, who is known for giving Hollywood grief alongside other moralists like the self-proclaimed "morality czar" William Bennett, now feels he can act like a stereotypical Jewish mother and try to give the whole nation a guilt complex by flaunting his religion about.

Swell. Uncle Sam impersonating Dr. Laura! We need this about as much as we collectively need a barium enema!

Lieberman joins the numerous members of the God Squad who erroneous believe that there is no such thing as a separation of church and state. He even goes so far as to proclaim that the founding fathers never intended such a notion to exist. Apparently he forgot the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in his own state of Connecticut in 1802:

". . . Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that one owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State..."

Now the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization dedicated to eradicating hate crimes, has come down against Lieberman’s cheap impersonation of Jerry Falwell. They are asking that he tone down the religious messages, not to constantly emphasize his Jewish heritage, and to stop interjecting biblical passages into his speeches.

This has Lieberman and others scratching their heads. After all, why would one Jewish group criticize a fellow man of faith?

Well let’s get brutally honest here.. it’s not about religion, but rather how that religion is used.

Much like "the Force" in George Lucas’ "Star Wars" stories, religion has its light and dark sides. And by light and dark, I don’t mean different religious groups, but rather HOW religion is used.

There is no doubt that religion has its benefits. It provides a foundation for people to grasp thing that cannot be easily explained. It answers the question of "why" things are the way they are. It gives people something to look forward to, a way to keep on going when all else seems bleak. It gives them a form of mental protection or "shield" from the things that would otherwise tempt them to stray from what they believe is their correct path in life. This is the "light" side of religion, and it doesn’t matter if that religion is Christianity, or Judaism, or Hinduism, or Islam, or even Wicca, the benefits of that particular belief are always the reasons why people adhere to them.

But religion also has a "dark" side, and that comes out when religion is used not to enlighten, but rather to oppress.

If the light side of religion can be considered a shield, then the dark side is a sword. Any time people use religion to oppress others, to persecute and coerce them, to keep them afraid, or to keep them ignorant, they use that dark side.

When Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was quoted in Playboy Magazine saying that organized religion has traditionally been "a scham and a crutch on the weak-minded", he was pointing out that dark side that many religious organizations have employed at some point in time. The dark side that many people refuse to admit exists, but often stands out like an ugly infected canker sore.

We all know of the stereotypical fiery, hell-and-brimstone preacher who uses his oratory talents to make his followers fear eternal damnation. He doesn’t operate out of genuine concern as he does to create fearful followers who are willing to do his bidding, no matter what that bidding is. But they don’t have to be loud and outspoken to get their way. They can also be smooth and slick, operating out of traditional brick and wood churches instead of tents.

Certainly Christianity -- of which the Roman Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, and Mormons are all branches of -- has its history of employing the dark side of their religion. From the days when the Roman Empire was converted, to the Crusades, to the Inquisitions, to the Salem Witch Trials, the sword of religion has been used to snuff out thousands of lives. "God" was often employed to defend and justify tyrannical positions, whether it was the deplorable state of life in France before the Revolution, to the sustaining of slavery in the American Civil War, even to justify the initial stages of Jewish persecution that led to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. As Jefferson once pointed out, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot..."

That is a far cry from telling people to simply "turn the other cheek".

Then there are the cases where religion becomes a cult. The cases where religious zealotry goes to the point where people actually risk their lives, willing to sacrifice anything and everything simply because their leader tells them to. Cases like Waco and Jonestown quickly come to mind as examples of where such zealotry has led to mass tragedy. Their leaders had readily employed the dark side of religion to reign in power over their members, and used fear and intimidation to keep them there.

Granted, many people today who are flaunting the dark sides of their religion would promptly say that they would never EVER allow their religious beliefs to go to those extremes. Strange thing is.. nobody ever believes it, until it does happen.

What fuels that dark side in religion is pride and arrogance, not to mention the quest for power and control over other people. In their arrogance, certain religious leaders presume that their interpretations of the world around them are THE only and uncontested interpretations. They see the people out there in their congregation, and they know that these people can do anything they tell them to do. To have people under your control is as addictive as any drug imaginable, and it is very easy for one to become hooked on that power. That’s why religious leaders are often against gambling, liquor, drugs, or sex, because those things dare to take away from their power.

That is why the Anti-Defamation League came down on Senator Lieberman. Not because of his religious beliefs, but because he was flaunting them much like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell does. If they loosened up on Lieberman simply because they share the same faith, then they would have betrayed their own cause.

Lieberman and the members of the press love to point out that John Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president. Well, Kennedy didn’t get elected because he flaunted his religion about. Quite the opposite. He got elected because he DIDN’T flaunt the Catholic Church about like some kind of banner. He didn’t put his faith on a pedestal and display it like some cheap trophy. If Lieberman wishes to use Kennedy as an example, he had best be prepared to take his own religion off the pedestal.

The bible-thumpers of America love to talk about responsibility.. well, they too have to be responsible for their actions. The role of religion is not to create followers, but rather to help guide others towards their own path. Religious leaders envision themselves to be shepherds to the multitude of sheep, but man is no sheep, unless he so deems himself. Nor should they delude themselves to think that theirs is the only guiding voice worth listening to. One of the greatest gifts given to humanity is our ability to make our own choices, and while some religious leaders would have us think that is a curse, it is in fact something that has been underutilized in our history. If our religious leaders are TRULY and legitimately concerned about our well-being, they should be more concerned with getting their believers to utilize that rare gift of free will.

And here’s a news flash to the people who constantly wail about that God has been shut out of the schools and the football games and government: God can go anywhere God pleases. God does not need you to be invited into a classroom or a football stadium, and God certainly does not need the assistance of some mealy-mouth politician who has his hands on our tax money and his head up the asses of special interests.

There is a reason why the very first clause in the First Amendment is the Separation of Church and State, and that is because until they declared their independence, the American colonies had an "official" religion: The Anglican Church, as so decreed by King George III. If any minister would like to take up good old George’s arrogance, please speak up.

America was no more founded on religious beliefs, Christian or otherwise, than it was on ideas. Ideas that said that there is more than one religious belief, more than one religious voice, and that to place one of those voices above all others insults ALL such voices. Politicians and men and women of faith would be best to keep matters of God and government separate.

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