In his recent guest column for On Faith, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress states that “the decision by Air Force Academy officials in Colorado Springs to construct an outdoor space for the worship of pagan deities is an open invitation for God to send His harshest judgments against our nation.”
I’d like to point out to Pastor Jeffress that when the Air Force respects and safeguards the religious rights of minorities, we are all safer. Patrick McCollum, who has fought many of the key legal battles for the rights of Pagan soldiers and prisoners, says, “When Pagans get our rights, everyone gets their rights.”
Rights are inconvenient things. We’d all probably like to reserve them for the good and deserving people and not have to fuss around when we stick it to the bad guys.
Problem is, who decides? And by what criteria? And how do we know the bad guys are truly bad, or that the accused are truly guilty? Those sorts of sticky questions got us the Bill of Rights and the concept of due process, for saints and sinners, for the accused who are innocent and those who turn out to be guilty. For if we deny due process to the guilty, we risk convicting the innocent.
And if we deny equal right to Pagans, because Pastor Jeffress interprets his Bible as saying his version of God doesn’t like our religion–we put him and his church at risk as well. For tomorrow, some other pastor, priest, rabbi or imam might decide that the First Baptist Church of Dallas is anathema to their version of God, and drive him and his flock into hiding.
The Founding Fathers and Mothers grasped that principle. They themselves had suffered the pain of persecution by other Christians who didn’t like their particular brand of worship. Jeffress alludes to this when he quotes Dr. Joseph Story, who served on the Supreme Court between 1811 and 1845:
“The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance, Islam or Judaism or any other infidelity by prostrating Christianity but to exclude rivalry between Christian denominations.”
In the past 150 years, we’ve advanced to the point where Jews and Muslims are not generally called ‘infidels’, at least in polite society. The framers of the Constitution may or may not have been thinking of broad, religious tolerance–nonetheless, the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Not “Christian religion”, but religion, plain and simple. Only if Jews, Muslims, Pagans and infidels of all sorts can worship freely can Christians of all denominations rest secure that their rights, too are safeguarded.
Pagans are currently fighting for our rights on many fronts. Patrick McCollum is waging a legal battle with the State of California over the rights of Pagan prisoners. The State is arguing that only five faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Native American, have a special standing that entitle their prisoners to a chaplain and religious services. McCollum and the Pagan prisoners are arguing that all faiths are entitled to equal consideration. If they win, they will secure rights not just for Pagans but for many other faiths and traditions.
“Goddess” is a metaphor for the great force of creativity and compassion that underlies existence–not so different from what many other religions call “God”. Pagans have a wide variety of beliefs and traditions, but we share in common a perspective that Goddess/God/Spirit goes beyond our limited human conceptions, that no one name or image or text or conception is big enough to define and contain Her/Him/That.
Jeffress is on shaky theological ground when he implies that God might punish the U.S. because of the Air Force’s provision of worship space for Pagans. I’m sure this is not what the good pastor intends, but his words could be taken to mean that God is about to use al-Qaeda as His instrument of divine punishment. That, I imagine, is what the followers of Bin Laden themselves believe, but it seems a dangerous line of argument to imply that terrorists and murderers of the innocent are, indeed, God’s holy warriors.
Myself, I believe that if God exists in somewhat of the form Jeffress perceives, he’s sitting up there on his cloud saying something like, “Go, Air Force! If you folks are building a stone circle for the Pagans, I know you’re going to be defending my people should they come under attack.”
But I don’t actually see God in quite that way. For Pagans, “Goddess” is a metaphor for the great force of creativity and compassion that underlies existence–not so different from what many other religions call “God”, and very similar to James Cameron’s conception of the linked, planetary intelligence of Eywah in his popular movie, Avatar. Pagans have a wide variety of beliefs and traditions, but we share in common a perspective that Goddess/God/Spirit goes beyond our limited human conceptions, that no one name or image or text or conception is big enough to define and contain Her/Him/That. Different faiths, different names for Goddess and God are like different doorways into the mysteries that go beyond words.
When we honor and respect the great diversity of faiths, we assure that our own doorway, too, will remain open.
For the Pagan Press on the Airforce Stone Circle, see: