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Archive for Wednesday, September 15, 2004

U.S. should be for everyone

September 15, 2004

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Last week I was interviewed by Jim Baker, a reporter for this newspaper, for an article he was writing on the growing movement among some Christians to have the United States formally declare itself to be a "Christian nation." When the article appeared, it included quotations from some local pastors strongly supporting such an idea. Upon reading the article I found myself profoundly disturbed on a very fundamental and personal level.

Apart from questions of history or political philosophy, I have a basic problem with this view. I'm not a Christian, but I am an American. I'm a Jew. And as an American Jew I become worried when I'm told that this is a Christian nation. I don't consider myself a "Jewish-American." I consider myself an American who follows the Jewish faith of his ancestors. But, in my mind, I'm no less an American than I would be if I were Christian.

The notion that this is a Christian nation and that the tenets of Christianity should be adopted as our official national beliefs and explicitly shape all of our legal and political institutions is one that worries me. I am worried not because I fear Christians or because I find Christian beliefs frightening. On the contrary, there is much in the Christian religion which I admire. But the fact is, I was born Jewish and my forebears were Jewish for generations. It is my religion, not Christianity, and I wish to remain Jewish.

I also am an American, as were my parents, and, on one side of my family, my grandparents. I love the United States. I am proud to be an American. I believe that our system of government is, beyond question, one of the greatest achievements of mankind. I do not see any conflict in being Jewish and being American. Judaism is my religion; I am a citizen of the United States.

Indeed, one of the things I cherish most about the United States is that it gave refuge to my ancestors and welcomed them at a time when many places in the world did not. To me that which is best about the United States is precisely this kind of openness and generosity of spirit and action, this kind of embrace of people who are different.

I still am moved every time I think about Emma Lazarus' lines on the Statue of Liberty: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..." My ancestors came here for freedom, for the freedom to live their lives, think their thoughts, and practice their religion without impediment or fear.

People of all religions and backgrounds have come to the United States. Christians, too, came here as immigrants. To speak now of the United States as a "Christian nation," in my opinion, is to tell non-Christians that they are not fully a part of this great nation. It is to tell people like me that we can never be fully American unless we give up our own cherished religious beliefs and convert.

To say that this is a "Christian nation" is, I am afraid, to say that all of us who are not Christian are but visitors here, "strangers in a strange land." I hope that I, and all of us who do not share the Christian faith are never asked to feel that way.

I recognize fully that Christianity in its many forms is the religion of choice for a majority of American citizens. I also recognize that has been so since this nation began. But that does not mean that the Founding Fathers wanted a theocracy. Had they wanted this they could easily have made this clear. England has always had a state religion. This country has never had one.

Certainly, I don't believe that I have the right to impose my non-Christian beliefs on others. And I also don't believe that the federal and state governments ought to tell anybody that they cannot choose to exercise their faith as they wish. But I also don't want to feel that I may not be treated fairly under this nation's laws because I am not Christian.

I never want to be forced to choose between obeying this nation's law and violating my religious beliefs. I don't want to be asked to say prayers that I do not believe in. And, most of all, I don't want to be told that I can never be as "American" as somebody else because I'm not a Christian.

Today our world is a very troubled place. In many places, religion is twisted to justify violence and murder. More and more people in many parts of the world are killed in the name of religion. Surely, this is a terrible thing.

I believe that the strength of the United States comes, in large part, from our national generosity, our tolerance, our belief in pluralism. Now, of all times, when we are under siege, we need to come together as Americans. We need to accept each other, respect each other, and work towards greater internal cohesiveness.

I would like to believe that the United States is a Christian nation and a Jewish nation and an Islamic nation and a Buddhist nation and even a secular nation because it is a nation that welcomes all who believe in our national ideals and who cherish freedom and tolerance and all of those aspirations the Founding Fathers set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

Let us be welcoming to all who would be part of our great nation regardless of race, religion or national origin. Let us truly find our strength in the motto "E pluribus unum," "from the many, one."

-- Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the

Journal-World.

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