It’s not easy being a religious minority in most of the world. Religious persecution has proven the norm through most of human history, and every religious tradition must inspire hope and courage to survive in hostile environments. Perhaps no religion has beaten the odds more often, when threatened with being stamped out, than the Jewish religion. The celebration of Hanukkah marks one such time, and its story tells of holding onto hope and maintaining courage even as logic and reason suggest that all is lost.
The Jewish people have known exile and genocide unlike any other religious group. They have been chased out of many lands. For example, Jews in Iraq fled to Israel not long after the Jewish nation of Israel was created. But now, some Kurdish Jews are discreetly returning. They seek to reclaim their heritage in a nation whose people largely despises Jews. I imagine the Hanukkah story provides many parallels with their own lives and what they feel called to do. Who knows how these people will fare, but they demonstrate profound hope and admirable courage.
In western Europe, religious attendance is extremely low outside of Ireland, despite public financing. Many of the great churches are empty. Faith has become largely a religious attitude supported by the government, but this is not what kindles hope and courage in people’s hearts. Catering to convenience has never ignited people’s hearts and minds. Authentic hope and courage are forged in the crucible of struggle.
In this country, the state does not endorse any religion. The United States of America was founded on ideals of religious freedom. Its founders belonged to assorted religious traditions, and most of them were not particularly pious. The separation between church and state was deliberate, to protect religious minorities from any leader prone to religious tyranny, to uphold the freedom of each American citizen to worship as one’s conscience dictates, so that religious coercion would not occur. This country was built on the enlightenment ideal of protecting individual conscience, of protecting the individual pursuit of meaning.
The Declaration of Independence is a quasi-religious document, not only a political one. It makes claims on the nature of reality, particularly that human beings are endowed with inalienable rights. It is ultimately a religious claim to say that all people are created equal. Similar to religious traditions, this ideal has inspired hope and courage and a tremendous amount of sacrifice.
This past Thursday, the Republication presidential hopeful Mitt Romney gave a significant address titled, “Faith in America.” As a member of a religious minority, Romney affirmed the bedrock ideal of religious freedom. I applaud his courage in proudly claiming his religion and not disavowing it for political reasons. He didn’t get into specifics, but Mormons, like us Unitarians, do not affirm the Trinity. They don’t see Jesus as God. And that is what freaks out many fundamentalists. Theologically, Romney is not one of them. But Romney’s speech catered to the Religious Right, as he expressed a deep desire to see a particular kind of faith flourish in the public square, one which tacitly calls for a specific set of behaviors.
Romney suggested that American culture is immersed in a culture war between those who have faith and those who don’t. His implications are that American culture is now in the hands of the secular elite and that it needs to be reclaimed by those who want a faith-based nation. He claimed our nation’s founders made religious declarations, that we have always been one nation under God. He didn’t acknowledge that his most quoted source, John Adams, was a Unitarian who sought an ethical form of Christianity, not an effusively pious one. And far more significant, the phrase “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance is only 53 years old. The words “under God” were added during the height of the McCarthy era. Our nation’s founders did not recite these words. The two presidents Romney named, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, both held a theology of Providence where one doesn’t assume that God is on your side, but one prays to be on the side of God and then works hard for the sake of discerning and cultivating profound truth.
I agree with Romney that “religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” But it would be no principle at all if one theological perspective, no matter how thin, were sanctified as the quintessential American one, and that’s what Romney wants–to publicly enshrine “the God who gave us liberty.” A part of me wants to agree with him, but it is a slippery slope.
Our nation’s founders did not affirm public faith statements. Instead, they believed our actions spoke much louder than any pronouncements. Religion, in this nation, was enshrined as a freedom not as a gathering force. That is the genius of the American experiment.
It is scary to hear front-running political candidates say, “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests” (not to mention how scary it is to have a president who appears to believe his own judgment is inerrant because of his faith in God). Our greatness will not long endure if one religious perspective is given free reign over all others.
In this country, I believe the most profound hope and courage has been kindled among those who have known real struggle. The African-American tradition has many examples of individuals and communities finding hope and courage in the teachings of a Jewish peasant who taught that no matter how little influence you have over your life, you still have the capacity to determine how you will respond, that you still own the keys to your own heart and conscience. And even though others can take your very life away, no one can take away the truth, joy, and integrity of your experience. Radical hope and courage are kindled within the struggle.
Cornel West reminds us that radical hope is grounded in what “the Enlightenment did not adequately articulate: the courage to care, to feel deep agony and anguish, to deal with the tears generated by the suffering that people experience. [Radical hope] is rooted in the blood-drenched tear-soaked traditions of resistance and critique–and in the agency of the wretched of the earth. The courage to hope, like laughter and dance, is an attempt to endure, to persevere, to fight, and to struggle come what may.”
During Hanukkah and this Christmas Season, may we kindle our own lamps of hope and courage to discern and engage what is worth struggling for.
Rev. Alan C. Taylor is minister of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation.