OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Freedom to worship, or not

The most hostile response ever to an assertion in this column? That would be to a sentence that America is not a Christian nation but a free-religion nation.

A lot of people didn't want anyone bringing that kind of heathenry anywhere near their comfort zones.

It probably was largely a misunderstanding. Many things are.

In the spirit of today's column, meaning the glory of inclusive religion, I'll admit something for the good of my soul: I wrote the sentence about a Christian nation and free religion in that contextually naked form--as the stand-alone lead paragraph of a column--in part to rile people in their smug over-simplicity. I probably shouldn't have done it, and I probably shouldn't do things like that as often as I do.

And I should be honest with myself and the reader further. I'll probably do it again any day now.

Those instinctively hostile to that opening sentence no doubt knew and appreciated that their American view was based on their Christian values. They took solace that the notions of right and wrong found in Christian teachings coincided with the behavioral norms of the American culture and the laws of American society. They didn't want anyone saying America was not Christian, because it devalued both their religious beliefs and their American patriotism.

I wasn't talking about them. I was talking about anyone who would deny people with other religious views their own American comfort zones. The U.S. Constitution is about comfort zones for all.

What I was saying, or getting around to saying, was not that there was anything remotely irregular or inappropriate about these offended readers bringing their Christian values to their American beliefs, behaviors and votes. It was that the Constitution, regarding religion, declares only that we have freedom of it in America, and that referring to the country as Christian--and assuming it to be that way and treating it as such--is to presume to assign to all what belongs only to oneself by personal choice.

I've been thinking about all that lately because there is a new book and a forthcoming documentary--and a looming presidential election, I fear--on these matters.

These developments stem from concern that the American Christian evangelical extreme right, emboldened in its insulation and echo chamber, is becoming more fervent and rigid that the nation and their religion must be the same. All of that seems to be coalescing in a cultish phenomenon that anoints Donald Trump as the inspired strongman of God who will blow freedom of religion out of the Bill of Rights and set up a mandated holy- roller or church-lady America.

This movement might be only 10 percent of the population, they say, but that's a much higher percentage of the electorate. It threatens to become stronger still because of its extremist activism while normal people aren't paying attention. When you combine the fervent 10 percent with other Republicans willing to go along because they like winning, you begin to understand why some grow concerned.

The book is "The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory" by Tim Alberta, son of a relatively moderate late evangelical Presbyterian minister, and a religious man himself, who also happens to be one of the nation's best political reporters and writers. His book is rich in agonizing anecdotes about evangelical extremism and irreligious Trump allegiance, or even worship.

But the best the book can do for a hopeful conclusion is to explain that politics is the wrong arena for a spiritual fight, because the battle will always transcend the next election cycle. Alberta says as much even as he admits he dreads the 2024 election. He can elaborate for himself when he graces the Ron Robinson Theater stage in downtown Little Rock on Thursday evening, May 9. Mark your calendar. Reserve your seat.

The documentary is called "God and Country," and many can now ignore it because I will tell them that one of the producers is Rob Reiner. He is one of those, you know, Hollywood liberals. The film won't be in theaters or streaming on Amazon Prime until late March and, as one movie previewer wrote, it won't change anyone's mind.

But its purpose seems to be to sound the alarm that we conceivably could be made less free in our own country because we don't do religion the way a Donald Trump cult does. It says some of these groups preaching Christian nationalism and Trumpism are using a version of Christianity as an excuse for an authoritarian ultra-right government.

Only a better religion can show a better way, persuading by the example of tolerance, inclusiveness and acceptance--by meekness, which, as my more spiritual friends have explained to me, isn't the weakness of a lamb but, when needed, the strength of a lamb-turned-lion.

We need meek lions that will roar out the glory of the First Amendment, seizing their freedom of religion by the protection of it for others.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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