As young people growing up in a small town we often visited one another’s churches. While there was broad religious teaching in these mixed groups it was never doctrinaire nor used as a tool to proselytize.
The church was not in the game of asserting power, only Christ. Over time, probably because of the unrest of the 1960’s, litmus tests seemed to be developed in these once friendly and cooperative churches. A person’s faith, or even their political opinions, could make them acceptable or suspect. Many churches became absolute in their teachings and if you didn’t agree you were either flawed, or worse not even a Christian.
Christianity, it seemed, was trying to insinuate itself into the workings of the secular world as a political force. Unfortunately, it was not a unified church but one of divided denominations, and independent congregations, with varying visions of the way things needed to be. I do not doubt the sincerity of my fellow Christians, only the ways things seemed to change.
I remember entering a church I had been to many times before — I was there to attend a youth group meeting. Though I was not a member of that particular denomination, the week before I had been elected president of the youth group. I was met at the door by the youth leader and pastor of the church. They said although they liked me personally, I was not going to be allowed to be in their youth program because I was not a member of their church (fair enough), but they went on to say that I was also not a good enough Christian because I was an Episcopalian (a judgment based on political and religious grounds). However, if I confessed [their Jesus and Lord] at that night’s service, I could stay a member of the youth group, and they would see I was elected president next time… I declined.
We are blessed to live in a pluralistic society, one that allows for a great breadth of opinion and lifestyles. I feel the greater the freedom of a citizenry, the better. I do not believe that our freedom should allow us privileges that would lessen the rights of others, or bring them harm, nor limit the quality of their lives. I do believe that we should have equal rights, and access to freedom, under the law. Justice in our land must truly be blind, and not legislated through the lens of a particular popular opinion or mindset, religious or not.
By the same token, as religious people we should embrace the gift of living in a pluralistic society, because it allows us to worship as we please, and associate with like minded people. It does not mean we have to embrace all that is allowed by society, any more than our faith and practice must to be embraced by others. But neither can we be enforced to acknowledge a state religion, or live by someone else’s moral code. I am hopeful that our nation never becomes governed by a mindset that would turn away people, or deny people their rights, just because they are not “our kind” of people, or act and live according to the moral code of “our kind” of people, or walk in lock-step with us.
The Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor is rector at Trinity Episcopal Church.
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