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FIRST-PERSON: What, exactly, is ‘Americans United’ united for – an absence of religion?

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“He’s trying to impose his religious views on other people” is how Barry Lynn characterizes President George W. Bush’s references to his faith. The executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is also said to “cringe” when President Bush makes mention of his spiritual life, USA Today reported recently.

Regardless of context, the word “impose” is a strong term. Among the definitions listed for this word in Webster’s Dictionary are: to use superior authority to secure submission to (one’s will, etc.), to force others to receive (especially oneself) as guest, and to take unfair advantage. Inherent in the word “impose” is the idea of forcing a reality that is unwelcome.

My question to Mr. Lynn is simple. How is openly discussing an important aspect of one’s life an “imposition”? The answer: It isn’t. It never has been, and let us hope in the United States it never will be.

The Constitution stipulates that tolerance be granted to people in the area of religion. No one can be kept from pursuing a particular faith and no one can be coerced into embracing religion. We are indeed fortunate to enjoy the freedom of faith.

Along with the freedom to pursue a particular faith, Americans also have the right to express religious viewpoints. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians all enjoy the ability to share the tenants of their faith. Those who disagree have the right to debate theology or even refute a faith system. No matter how heated the arguments become, we must respect and defend one another’s right to pursue and proclaim a particular religion. This social toleration is essential if differing religions are to coexist in the United States.

Many people are not comfortable discussing subjects that engender controversy. As a result, they choose not to discuss either religion or politics. That is their choice. However, there are many that have no problem sharing, debating or even arguing issues of faith and/or government.

A U.S. president practicing and proclaiming his religion is nothing new. Former President Bill Clinton often included lengthy Bible passages in his speeches. Though a self-professed Baptist, he was frequently photographed by the media attending a Methodist church. Richard Nixon, a Quaker, regularly hosted evangelists at the White House and Jimmy Carter, a Baptist, taught Sunday school.

When a president speaks openly and honestly about his faith, is he “imposing” his religion on others as Mr. Lynn asserts? Of course not. The current president is also very health conscious. He works out regularly, some would even say religiously. Does that mean he is seeking to “impose” physical fitness on the American people?

I am sure President Bush would endorse an exercise regime as part of a healthy lifestyle. In the same way, he might even recommend religion, even his own faith, as “a steadying influence.” Is that an “imposition” of religion? If it is, then it can be argued that Americans United for Separation of Church and State are seeking to “impose” an absence of religion in America — and that would be intolerable.
Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press. He is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs