Extend Acceptance to Those of All Beliefs

By Kathy Ivey, May 15, 2011

Most of us like to think we are tolerant and free of bias against another’s skin color, religion, country of origin and sexual orientation.
Indeed, political correctness is required in polite society, so that even if we harbor resentment or intolerance toward a particular group, we keep it to ourselves.

Although political discourse has devolved into incredible meanness over the past 30 years, when we in the Coulee Region meet one another in social situations, we are usually nice, polite, good-natured people. That is, unless the conversation should turn to our religious practices — or lack thereof.

Recently, one writer to this newspaper’s Opinion page described a time when she was asked which church she attended. Being a Christian, but not attending a particular congregation, she felt the question should have been directed toward her faith, not the specific church which she may attend.

I find this story instructive in that it tells us something about our assumptions. First, the questioner assumed this person attended a church, a fact disputed by the letter writer, as she practiced her faith without benefit of a formal religious affiliation. But the writer of the letter herself found nothing wrong with the assumption that she was a Christian.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this small episode. However, it does reflect a quandary faced by those of us who may be of a faith tradition other than Christianity or who may be atheist.

When entering into a conversation about faith, we must determine just how much information to divulge. If the conversation is with a casual acquaintance, should we discuss our lack of Christian faith? How important is it to be candid? What could the consequences be? How can we be open and honest without being offensive?

In a perfect world, no one would ever have to consider these questions. I can remember a time when one’s faith was a private matter, including the faith or lack thereof of politicians and public servants.

However, in these times it is not only accepted but imperative that we profess our beliefs publicly and frequently, especially if we are in the public sphere. There are some Christians, as well, who have harsh views of other Christians as lacking in the one true faith and who fervently believe it is their right and duty to convince the rest of us of the veracity of their belief. At one time in my rather long life, that attitude would have been considered arrogant.

Growing up Unitarian in Madison in the 1960s was an experience for which I’m grateful. There, in the political and social fervor of the time, I felt completely accepted by my community. My faith home was the First Unitarian Society, well-known and respected as a place for free thought, with attention to science and the scientific method as a basis for knowledge, and to the exemplars of theological thought as a basis for morality.

Most of my friends attended First Unitarian, First Congregational, Covenant Presbyterian, Beth El, St. Paul’s or any number of congregations — or none at all. After a sojourn of some years in Arizona, my husband and I returned to Wisconsin, choosing this lovely area as our home.

We find ourselves happy and content with our choice. La Crosse has incredible scenery, musical and theatrical offerings of very good quality, availability of excellent medical care, and lovely people.

And yet there is an underlying assumption, a tangible yet tacit understanding, that people of good will have faith, specifically Christian faith. I find this uncomfortable and unfortunate.

I implore all of us to be cognizant that another’s faith journey may be different from our own, so that should we find ourselves in a conversation regarding religion, we make no assumptions, nor do we judge another’s journey.

We all have a richness of character, informed by our background, our parents, our experiences, our education and our economic circumstances. We all share basic values of honesty, integrity, stewardship of the Earth and caring for one another. There is so much we can learn from one another if we would but deeply listen.

While witnessing to one’s faith is a tenet of many religions, we need not see that as permission to proclaim our beliefs to those around us but rather as a requirement that we live our lives in a manner that exemplifies our deepest moral convictions.

As an educator, I can attest to the truth that we learn best by example. Let us take that truth to our hearts, and profess our moral, ethical and religious convictions by the example we set in our interactions with each other.

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