Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion

One of my favorite lines from legendary journalist H.L. Mencken is his definition of puritanism – “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

That fear might be the driving force behind the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The FFRF is a group out of Wisconsin that pesters government agencies to maintain a separation of church and state. Its weapon of choice appears to be frivolous litigation.

Many Augustans first got wind of the FFRF last month when The Chronicle reported how the group started poking around into how Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s monthly prayer breakfasts are put together and paid for. The breakfasts have been held since 2005, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a regular local event that so consistently ameliorates racial healing in our community.

But to hear the FFRF fret about it, you’d think the mayor was grabbing people in headlocks and forcing them to pray – all on the taxpayer’s dime. Turns out, though, that the breakfast’s food is donated, and the only city expenditure is the time spent sending emails to the folks invited to participate.

 

THE FFRF also sent a letter to Fort Gordon. Why? Well, the fort’s Regimental Noncommissioned Officers Academy lets participants in its Advanced Leader Course perform community service projects, which is a great idea.

But apparently someone – presumably one of the FFRF’s 369 Georgia members – recently spotted soldiers sprucing up the property outside Catholic Social Services, and jumped to the conclusion that Fort Gordon orders soldiers to work for religious charities.

I probably don’t have to tell you this, but I will anyway – Fort Gordon does not order soldiers to work for religious charities. According to fort Public Affairs Officer J.C. Mathews, CSS is on the academy’s list of local organizations that request help from Fort Gordon soldiers. Since CSS is a private organization, soldiers can and do offer assistance voluntarily.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... .” The Founding Fathers thought that was so important that they made it the very first phrase of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

 

THE FFRF keeps hammering away about how the government should not establish a religion. I don’t think the government should, either.

But the FFRF seems to be real fuzzy on the “free exercise” part.

Are either the prayer breakfasts or the leader course’s volunteer program really establishing a religion? If so, they’re doing miserable jobs of it. You want some pointers on governmental establishment of a religion? Take notes from Iran or Saudi Arabia. (Just don’t let then catch you – you might get beaten or imprisoned.)

Meanwhile, in America, Congress isn’t ordering you or me how to worship, and everyone – even mayors and soldiers – has the freedom to publicly express aspects of their faith.

I’m sure the people over at the FFRF get a kick out of quoting Thomas Jefferson, since he’s probably America’s most famous deist. Here’s a quote I like, from 1782: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

See? Even he didn’t care who you prayed to, or if you prayed at all. But the FFRF sure does – and it sure seems to get its members steamed.

Which brings us back to the Mencken quote.

For all the FFRF’s bluster over the separation of church and state, its members consistently forget – or choose to ignore – one key fact: Religion, whether the FFRF likes it or not, makes people very happy.

There’s a ton of research to back that up, but in the interest of space I’ll mention just two of my favorite examples:

• A 2010 study by the University of Toronto-Scarborough found that believers who thought about God suffer less from the stress and anxiety associated with making mistakes.

When nonbelievers think about God under the same circumstances – well, you get the idea. They get more stressed.

• Why do people of faith seem happier? Research in the American Sociological Review cites the social joys from participating in regular worship. Closer human ties boost your satisfaction.

What makes FFRF members happy? Patting one another on the back congratulating themselves on being nonreligious, I suppose.

And you know what, if that’s what makes you happy, that’s fine. It “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” as a great man once said.

But the last time I checked, religion isn’t a yoke to escape but a choice to be made freely. The Constitution guarantees us a freedom of religion, not a freedom from it.

And a mayor’s monthly breakfast or a soldier doing yard work simply doesn’t establish a religion. The slightest action by a good person of faith doesn’t equate to full-throttle proselytizing.

Will the Freedom from Religion Foundation ever realize all that?

God only knows.

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