© 2008 by Janice Byrd

Janice Byrd of McKinney: Defined by our religion

It often says more about our traditions than our faith
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

It seems that most people in the world view their religion as a birthright. They believe that the culture, clan, or country where they were born determines their faith, or lack thereof. They consider their religion as immutable as their race and ethnicity. Consequentially, their religion is more often than not, in name only.

Part of the confusion comes from our use of the same word to describe a race and a religion. Saying that someone is Jewish could mean that his mother was a descendent of the ancient tribe of Judah, or it could mean that he himself is a religious Jew. A person of any race could convert to Judaism, and the son of a Jewish mother might choose to become a Christian. But both are called Jews. (Certainly, one could be both a cultural and religious Jew, as well.)

Within Christianity, the words Catholic and Christian are sometimes used interchangeably. In Italy, Portugal, and Mexico, I have met people who refused to acknowledge that I was a Christian because I was not Catholic. To them, changing one’s faith is tantamount to denying one’s nationality, family, or culture.

We observe the same phenomena in countries where Islam is prescribed by the law of their land. Choosing another faith in such cultures can be a deadly decision. A Beirut newspaper editor recently explained that the state religion has replaced many of the attributes of statehood. It has become a national identity and the only legitimate religious expression. That has led to a nominal and governmental faith.

As more Islamic people move into our country, I sense unease among many who are unfamiliar with Muslims. They assume that these immigrants are in some way connected with the terrorists we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, these newcomers may more likely be expressing their ethnicity or culture. Here in America, they will have the freedom to explore and examine their faith in comparison to other religions. They may decide to practice their family's traditional religion in our multi-religious environment, where faith is not dictated, or they may choose another one.

State religions further complicate the integration of a chosen, personal faith and a legal expression of that faith. Whether it is Saudi Arabia, Monaco, England, Israel, Argentina, or the dozens of other countries which promote and support a certain church, a civil religion leads to assumptions of belief. Religion and politics become synonymous. Ireland, Palestine, and the Balkans are a few examples of the conflicts attributed to religion but, in actuality, are political struggles for power and resources. In America, where we officially have “separation of church and state,” political parties are now debating which is more “Christian.”

When nationalism becomes a de facto cultural religion, people equate being a good citizen with the practices of the majority religion. Although the United States has not been listed as a “Christian” nation at the UN for decades, many Americans claim to be Christians by virtue of their patriotism. They may know nothing of the theology or practices of Christianity, let alone, believe them.
Religious tolerance originally meant allowing people of all faiths to practice their beliefs without fear of reprisal. Today tolerance has come to mean that all faiths are equally valid, and saying otherwise is not tolerated! A religion that is not different from any other belief system is a religion in name only. I welcome the public expression of all faiths. I am not offended when someone else sees things differently and tells me so.

But, talking about one’s faith is particularly complicated today, in part, because so many people haven’t given their claimed religion a thought. Of course, it is natural to accept the faith of one’s family of origin, but at some point, one must make that faith his own if it is to be anything but nominal. Faith is not an accident of birth.

Unfortunately, many political and religious rulers deny their citizens the right to choose their faith, but just as tragic are those who presume a faith without consideration. The United States constitution guarantees us the freedom to exercise our religious beliefs, but those who don’t are, in effect, no different from those who can’t.

Janice Byrd of McKinney is library director of the First Baptist Church of McKinney, a book performer and a Voices of Collin County volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is Janice@JaniceByrd.com.

Email | Print | RSS