Freedom of Religion: Whether We Like it or Not

Sermon delivered October 12, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Last November, on the Sunday immediately prior to Election Day, Governor Perry attended Sunday worship at a large San Antonio church. In his sermon that day, the Pastor declared that any person who did not seek God through Jesus Christ would suffer eternal damnation, or something to that effect. After the service, Governor Perry was asked whether he agreed with what the Pastor had said. The Governor answered in the affirmative, clarifying that he was speaking about his own, personal faith.

A firestorm followed. The questions, though, did not focus on the only two issues that seemed to me to be relevant. I did wonder whether the Pastor should properly have seated one candidate for office, offering clear if not explicit endorsement, on his pulpit, two days before the Governor would be on the ballot. That issue ought to have been explored. Any discussion of that matter, if proper, would have included examination of similar infractions at the other end of the political spectrum. Suffice it to say that such a thing will never happen here, at Temple Beth-El.

The other ignored issue was whether the Governor’s expressed faith had unduly affected his performance in office over a period of six years prior to that particular election. In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy was interviewed in Houston, by a panel of Baptist preachers, skeptical about whether a Roman Catholic could properly serve as President of the United States. Kennedy declared that he would swear his oath to, and take his guidance from, the Constitution of the United States. He would not make his policy decisions on the basis of Papal decrees. When a leader affirms an exclusionary faith, as Governor Perry did, we may rightly ask whether he views his highest authority as Governor to be his church or the State Constitution. We ought not to prejudge the answer, however.

Governor Perry is entitled to his faith. Every American is. When we like the religious expression that we hear, and when we do not, we can be grateful that each and every citizen of our nation is entitled to his or her own beliefs and practices, however repugnant they may be to us.

And what of that pastor, who said that we Jews, like others who don’t believe in Jesus, have no hope of salvation? This particular pastor is known for his support for Israel, yet I am known to be wary of him. Friends and congregants were eager to hear my condemnation of the Pastor’s expression of faith on his pulpit. They were sadly disappointed. I’m told that some Jewish folks, who are friendly with the Pastor, and who support his efforts, were deeply troubled. They were insulted that their friend would declare them unworthy of God’s eternal embrace. Indeed, such a declaration is not a basis for friendship, so I can understand their personal dismay. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, I was inclined to support the Pastor on this occasion. What had he done, after all? He had expressed his faith – a fairly basic tenet of traditional Christianity, at that – on his pulpit, on a Sunday morning, during worship services. If such a statement were impermissible, at that time and in that place, then freedom of religion would be absolutely meaningless.

All too often, members of our community will tell me of expressions of Christianity that they find offensive, but which are entirely appropriate in a free society. For example, at an explicitly faith-based privately-funded Christian organization, where non-Christians are welcome to work or participate, a prayer is offered in Jesus’ name at the beginning of each meeting. Or perhaps a Bible study group gathers voluntarily during lunchtime, in a space provided by a private employer who has been asked to do so. And what shall we say about a Christian youth group, freely-associating high school students, who have taken advantage of rules permitting any student group, religious or secular, to utilize a classroom after school for their meeting?

To be sure, each of these examples offers opportunities for abuse. If the faith-based organization accepts government funds, it ought not to be discriminatory, even on the grounds of religious doctrine. If the private employer wouldn’t offer space to a Muslim prayer group as it does to a Christian Bible study, workplace discrimination may rightly be charged. And if the high school group is actively supported by faculty during class or activity time, then the First Amendment is violated, not upheld.

Absent abuses, though, free expression of religion is protected by the United States Constitution, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Moreover, Judaism has thrived as a result.

The same Constitution that protects the Pastor’s right to proclaim that I may suffer eternal damnation affords us the unfettered opportunity to worship here in historic freedom and security.

The First Amendment gave a Church the right, this past summer, to behave abominably, devoid of compassion, refusing at the eleventh hour to host a funeral for a deceased gay man. That same foundation of our nation permits me to officiate at a wedding of two Jewish men or two Jewish women, here on our pulpit, in accordance with the teachings of Reform Judaism, even though the marriage isn’t recognized by the State.

As a result of these freedoms, Judaism, like a myriad of other religious faiths and practices, has thrived in America.

In Europe, where Christianity flourished for millennia, countless churches, even Cathedrals, are basically museums today. No active faith is practiced in so many of those places, where religion, often still supported by the state, has largely died.

In Israel, Muslims and Christians enjoy religious liberty, as do those Orthodox Jews who follow a corrupt, state-supported religious establishment, devoid of spirituality and morality. Reform and Conservative Rabbis cannot perform legal marriages, so secular and liberal Jews must appear before the representatives of the Chief Rabbinate to be married in accordance with a religious expression they find irrelevant or repugnant or both. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are cynical about religion altogether, alienated from the faith that forms the basis for their nation.

In most of the Muslim world, practice of other religions is a crime. The result is the brand of Islam that terrorizes the world today, dehumanizing anyone who does not adhere to the most extreme perversions of that faith. When religion doesn’t have to compete, if you will, on the open market, the result is disastrous.

Perhaps the moral of the Tower of Babel is that, if we all speak the same religious language, we will build outsized idols. We will be convinced that we know the one and only true way to reach God. Ultimately, like those mythical tower-builders, we will fail. Perhaps God is best served by the cacophony of different religious expressions, each in its own language of faith, seeking for a way to praise and glorify the Creator.

Let neither our government nor any other imagine that religion is strengthened with state support. To the contrary, faith loses the trust of the people, or it becomes grossly distorted, when enforced with the sword, the rifle, and the government dollar.

Let neither our government nor any other restrict the free expression of religion. Yes, we must be careful of abuse – and there are compelling interests, such as health and safety – that take precedence. And yet, ideally, each religion should teach and preach its own authentic faith, rising or falling on its own merits.

Then, let every group, in the tradition of each individual faith, build our sanctuaries to God’s glory. Let us build no tower into heaven, but many gateways to the presence of God. Then, may God dwell among us, delighting in the faithful babble.