‘Religion’ is not a synonym for ‘Christianity’

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There was a time in America’s history that, when talk turned to religion, it was widely assumed you meant Protestant forms of Christianity. Eventually, and with some struggle, this was broadened to include Catholics and Jews, creating a tri-faith “Judeo-Christian” conception of faith in the United States. Groups outside this understanding were, at the time, either too small, or considered too strange and foreign, to be seriously considered. Thanks to a number of different factors, immigration, social upheaval, and shifting attitudes, different religious groups and movements took hold and found fertile soil here. Now the Judeo-Christian understanding is increasingly threadbare as Pagans, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, African diasporic faiths, syncretic movements, renewed indigenous traditions, and those who claim no formal faith at all, demand equal treatment and consideration under the law. This has created a unique friction as those who cling to the  old conceptions of faith in America encounter a pluralism that threatens their conception of moral and societal order.

A perfect example of this friction is displayed in the case of Louisiana’s new, expansive, school voucher program that would funnel government money to private schools, including religiously-run schools. There are a number of things that are being challenged in the new law, and it remains to be seen if it will ultimately stand, but some early supporters are having second thoughts now that it’s apparent that “religious” schools don’t automatically mean “Christian” schools.

Rep. Valarie Hodges

Rep. Valarie Hodges, worried about Muslim school vouchers.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican who represents East Baton Rouge and Livingston, now says she wishes she hadn’t voted for the Jindal voucher bill. “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” Hodges told theLivingston Parish News. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges added. The newspaper reported that she “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’” […]  “Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges told the News. “We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”

You see, while Christianity is still the most popular form of religious adherence in the United States, they no longer operate unchallenged. Since this is a pluralistic, secular, country, the law is prohibited from favoring one faith over another, and there are people willing to fight so that ethos is enforced. However, religiously conservative (predominantly Christian) lawmakers and advocacy groups, in an effort to roll back disestablismentary reforms made in the 20th century, have floated a larger number of “religious freedom” laws, many aimed at public schools, that they hope will create a status quo which benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. Branding any space carved out for non-Christian rites as an assault on their free exercise. Driving home an ethic that says religious freedom isn’t about celebrating diversity, but clearing space for the majority.

Perhaps I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of a then-pending student “religious liberties” bill.

The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

You see, the “other faiths you don’t like might benefit” scenario presented above is more a gambit than a true threat. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure (and if you don’t believe that, you don’t remember high school). The real problem is that the coalition of groups working for the long-term shifts in how schools and the public square deal with religion, have to balance that with their fear-mongering that paints groups like Pagans, or more often Muslims, as a serious threat to their conception of a “Christian Nation.” If you delegitimize minority faith communities by saying they aren’t real religions, that the First Amendment doesn’t even apply to them, or that they are sleeper cells for terror, your constituents will be shocked when they learn they have equal access to the law.

Of course, religion is not a synonym for Christianity, and recently two federal appeals courts have handed down decisions against allegedly “open” public invocation policies that were too uniformly Christian. So perhaps all the maneuvering to reintroduce Christianity into our government and school curriculum through the side-door will ultimately collapse, especially as religious minorities become increasingly proactive in establishing their rights. What’s important if we want to stop these initiatives that (consciously or not) twist religion into meaning simply “Christianity” is an increasing commitment to engagement from religious minorities. Only by standing up and being heard, by destroying the notion that this is solely a Judeo-Christian nation, can we progress to a point where American pluralism means something. We have to pursue a policy of both fighting these laws that are designed to benefit the majority faith, while also promising that we will seek full and public participation in them should they pass.