Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kenneth B.

My name is Kenneth Bernstein. On various electronic fora I am known as Teacherken. Much of my life has been an inchoate search for meaning. During my almost 59 years of life I spent time in a variety of religions. While I am now officially a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I have at various times attended regularly at synagogues (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox), been an active member of churches (Episcopalian and Orthodox Church in America), received a masters degree from a Roman Catholic seminary, taught comparative religion in synagogue, church and public high school. As I write this I sit in a room full of books on religion. Trained as a musician much of the music I love is derived from people's dedication to their faith, and I have served as a choir director in the Orthodox Church.

In my own search for meaning I have spent a summer in an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery, and had several extended stays on Mount Athos in Greece, where for almost a decade my personal spiritual father was the abbot of one of the monasteries. My wife --who is an active Orthodox Christian who is pro-life in every sense (including opposing the death penalty) as well as an ardent environmentalist -- and I were married in an Orthodox church ceremony. I do not believe that any reasonable person could consider us hostile to people of faith.

I am officially an independent, as I live in Virginia, which does not have party registration. I have voted for a few Republicans for local office over the years I have lived here, but I have never campaigned for anyone except Democrats. I consider myself quite liberal / progressive on most issues, although I do believe in fiscal responsibility in government. Thus the two presidential candidates about whom I have been most excited were both social liberals who were fiscal conservative, Fritz Hollings and Howard Dean.

Perhaps because I teach government, I am appalled by the misinterpretation of our Constitutional tradition that I hear from people like Tom Delay and Bill Frist, or from people who claim to be Christian. This nation was founded on principles of the enlightenment, with a conscious effort by most of the important founders to separate the government from religion, and thereby to protect religion from government. It is worth noting that even before the Constitution we had a strong tradition of this separation. When states wrote constitutions in 1776 to replace their colonial charters, many, like that of Pennsylvania, guaranteed religious freedom, that document near its beginning stating

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship : And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

The Constitution itself does not mention God, and clearly states in Article VI that no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

As one who has seriously studied the Bible, I resent those who quote selectively, who use distorted translations, who ignore the clear import. I fail to see how anyone who would call themselves Christian could ignore the life of the Jesus of Nazareth who was criticized for dining with tax collectors and sinners. I am shocked at those who would prescribe harsh penalties for those they claim violate "God's laws" when Jesus challenged them by saying that only those who were themselves without sins should cast stones at the woman taken in adultery, or who challenged those condemning others for motes to look at the beams in their own eyes. And I cannot imagine that someone can consider themselves Christian when acting, saying, or implying that those who suffer in life because of poverty or hunger or nakedness or imprisonment have only themselves to blame when the clear words of Jesus in Matthew 25 is that how we will be measured will be by how we acted towards "the least of these" whom he calls his brethren.

My purpose in this message is not to engage in a bible quoting -- or Constitution quoting -- contest. As a person who believes deeply I want my religious beliefs to be free from government interference. Lincoln told us that as he would not want to be a slave neither would he want to be a slaveowner. I apply that as follows: I am a member a tiny religious minority, and I was born into a religious tradition that has been subject to discrimination and far worse. I value the protection offered me by our Constitution. As I would not want to be be oppressed because of my beliefs or what others might consider by unbelief, neither would I wish to impose my beliefs on others.

To any politician or those who seek political influence who wishes to impose one particular view of morality and religion, I say you are not only not acting an an American fashion, you are not acting in a Christian fashion. In your attempts to impose or mandate your beliefs you admit your fear that your ideas will not have appeal on their own. Perhaps that may be because those ideas are neither American nor Christian in their origin. Oh I grant that they may be developed by people who lived in the united States and who considered themselves Christian. But there are almost two billion Christians of various denominations around the world, and what you express would be alien to most of them. And as a student of history I know that Founders like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, to name just a few, would absolutely reject what you claim was their intent in the establishment of our system of government.

As a liberal, one influenced by the teaching of both the Jewish and Christian bibles, I know that to live a faith based on either or both of those documents requires humility -- men do not, after all, have the mind of God. Such a life requires a recognition of our responsibility as individuals and as a society for those not well off. Such a life could not find support for the doctrine of unfettered capitalism that offers no concern for the poor -- after all one Mitzvah for the Jew was to leave the corners of the field unharvested so that the poor might have something to eat. There is no justification in either "Testament" for greed, for self-aggrandizement and justification, for seeking power in order to accumulate wealth, or for seeking power merely to be powerful. Rather, both collections of spiritual wisdom offer many condemnations of those who mistreat the poor, or show a lack of hospitality to strangers, the Jewish Bible pointedly reminding its readers that they are not to deny justice to the sojourner in their land because they themselves were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

I will not condemn you if I think you are wrong. I will hope that you will allow the spirit of God as you know it to fill you with love. In the words of John, men will know that people are disciples of Jesus because they will love one another even as he has loved them. And I will not accept that you have any moral authority to condemn those with whom you disagree. That surely shows a lack of faith in a God who is all loving, who is thus capable of persuading all to turn to him.

I respect those whose belief may be different than mine. That is why I believe so strongly in the separation of Church (or synagogue, temple, pagoda, or mosque) and state. Insofar as you will advocate against such separation, I will oppose you. I will oppose you as violating the principles on which our nation was founded. And I will oppose you as violating the clear intent of the teaching of Jesus, and the far broader understanding of the Christian world both in much of the past and in much of the world today. It is precisely because I respect people of faith that I will do so.

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