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What Is The Point of Religion?

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The Angel of Equality on the Thomas Jefferson Monument in Louisville, Kentucky

The Union of Reform Judaism earlier this month resolved to welcome transgender people into their congregations and preschools and camps. 

Two days later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly put out some rules changes that defined people in same-sex marriages as apostates, allowing them to be excommunicated. The rules also told children of same-sex married couples that they could be part of the Church when they are older, only if they disavow their parents. For those opposed to the policy, it meant parents of gay people had to choose between their children and their faith.

What was supposed to be a clarification on a long standing Church policy got a lot of attention. The New York Times picked it up and has been running updates as many people have publicly left the Church. It’s been on broadcast outlets, and just about every major online and print magazine.

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But why do we only hear about religion when it’s excluding people? Why did we all hear about the Mormon decision, but the Reform Judaism decision didn’t make it into the national consciousness?

Why does Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples based on her religious beliefs, spark conversations on all sides, but we talk about Jimmy Carter as a public figure – even though his every work is steeped in his faith?

What is the point of religion? And what does it have to do with democracy?

Canon Catherine Gregg, Episcopal pastor: "I think the purpose of religion is to help us reflect on our experience as spiritual beings in a material world. We are what we are made of, but we are more than what we are made of. 

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, Temple Sinai: "'To repair the world under the sovereignty of God.' So take all the aspects of the world that seem broken and perfect them and use God as our inspiration"

Amy Kittelstrom says religion and democracy have intersected since the 18th century, when Christian denominations in Boston came to view religion as about the innate equality of individuals.

"That idea then spread west, to be intellectual, open minded, inclusive and aiming for progress that involves the pursuit of knowledge."

Kittelstrom is an associate professor of history at Sonoma State University and she authored the book "The Religion of Democracy."

She said the view certain Christians in the 18th Century had of God, their own divine right of private judgment and their liberty of consciousness influenced developing political views. 

"The way they conceived of God was a being who did not discriminate among his creatures and so treating one another as equals became actually a religious practice at the very same time democracy was becoming the law of the land," Kittelstrom explained. 

She believes that part of the story of how our democracy was formed has been obscured over the years.

Kittelstrom thinks the rise of the Religious Right has taken over the discussions about faith and politics.

"In this last third of the 20th Century, so-called mainline Protestant denominations were backing civil rights, gender equality and other wild things like single-issue voting, and these issues - especially surrounding abortion - helped create an ideologically driven Right that has taken the face of American religion. I think a lot of people would like to add some other faces to that picture again," she said.

Melanie Tubbs is one of those poeple. She is studying to be ordained and is currently a licensed local pastor with the Methodist Church in Arkansas. She wrote a blog post titled "A P*ssed Off Southern Pastor Tells It Like It Is," which outlines how other pastors in her area are allowed to talk all they want about their right-wing political views but she feels she can't do the same with her liberal views.

"When I wrote that article that day, it was because my fellow pastor friends were posting all kinds of political things on Facebook that were incredibly Right, and incredibly hate-filled and intolerant and they felt perfectly safe in doing that," Tubbs said.

Tubbs said that while she received a lot of comments disparaging her blog post, she also received hundreds of messages from people who agreed with her. 

"What everybody didn't see is that I was getting so many messages... saying 'This is what I've been waiting to hear. This what I desperately needed to hear'" Tubbs said. 

Tubbs believes people are leaving organized religions because they don't feel many of the religions speak to their feelings on inclusion and tolerance. 

Canon Catherine Cregg, an Episcopal pastor in Las Vegas, agrees that it can be difficult to look for and find churches that offer the kind of inclusivity that people, especially younger people, are seeking. It is something she has seen in her own life.

"I've got three children in their 30s and all of them say basically, 'it's not worth the bother to look for it,'' Gregg said, about sussing out churches that are spiritually and intellectually open. "They say: 'I'm spiritual but I don't want to be affiliated with a party or any kind of institution that speaks of hate, that speaks of exclusion and that isn't part of the healing of the world.'"

For Gregg, it is the messy conversations about inclusion, the conversations that challenge us, that show a person's spiritual maturity. 

"I think sometimes religion has been defined by taking this big black magic marker and making this thick line and then deciding who is in and who is out. Anybody who is like me is inside this little circle and anybody who thinks differently than me - oh and by the way God is always on the inside with me," Gregg explained. "But I like being part of a faith tradition that says life happens when you start to color outside the lines."

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen believes his congregation is a microcosm of the bigger American society. There are liberal leaning members and conservative leaning people. 

"We have to be able to talk about really difficult issues in a mutually respectful way. And if we can do that within our congregations, it might spread," Cohen said.

 

Guests

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, Temple Sinai in Las Vegas; Canon Catherine Gregg, Episcopal pastor; Melanie Tubbs, who is studying to be ordained and is currently a licensed local pastor with the Methodist Church; Amy Kittelstrom associate professor of history, Sonoma State University and author of the book, “The Religion of Democracy”

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