Faith and the Pursuit of Happiness

Faith and the Pursuit of Happiness February 24, 2019

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence

Without a doubt, those are the most well known words in the history of the United States–our solemn creed written so prominently on our national birth certificate. Yes, we hold these words dear. We also have abused them from the very beginning and have never even come close to living up to them. The Declaration of Independence is a lofty target at which we have been aiming for more than 240 years. Yet, that target sits in nearly pristine condition as we’ve missed the mark time and time again. Because of the egalitarian message of Jefferson’s words, there was a premium placed upon individual freedoms by many of the founding fathers when the Constitution was being constructed. That Constitution would have never come to pass without the promise of the Bill of Rights to further ensure that nobody can stand in the way of our pursuit of happiness, so long as our efforts don’t harm others or interfere with their rights. Yet, even with those safeguards in place, we’ve still managed to butcher the whole thing more often than not. How can that be? As I see it, the culprit is the use of faith as a weapon.

Faith, like most everything else, comes down to individual perception. No two people share an identical set of faith-based beliefs. Sure, we find others who are similarly inclined and give our groups names, but within those groups of people, there are no two individuals who have identical beliefs, understandings, interpretations, or convictions. So sects form within our groups. Then, as sects, we go around claiming the moral high ground and demanding conformity. The Pilgrims left England because they refused to conform to the church there. Then as soon as they got on their feet in America, they started demanding everyone conform to their way here, thus people were ostracized and sects formed and split. Consequently, new colonies formed. Our very map reflects the truth in what I write. And not much has changed.

We have a dark history of using faith to justify atrocities and denying rights to people who don’t conform to our faith-based sect’s norms. We killed or drove out millions of Native Americans because they were “godless savages” who would not conform. We enslaved millions of Africans and justified it because we made them conform to Christianity. We strong-armed Mexico into giving up nearly half their country in the name of Manifest Destiny–the hysteria-driven notion that God wanted America to spread from coast to coast. The Civil War finally brought an end to slavery and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments guaranteed equal rights to those freed blacks. But men and women in the South, under the guise of their Christian faith, put on white robes and hoods and began years of terrorism to keep the newly enfranchised blacks from their pursuit of happiness. But hate, fear, and bigotry know no borders and soon, what began in the South had infested the entire nation.

Faith, weaponized, in the name of nationalism–does this sound familiar?

As America continued to diversify and the non-conformers began to fight for real equality, using faith as a weapon went out of fashion–at least out in the open for all to see–and lost its social acceptability. Between the 1950s and the 2000s, America appeared to have made great strides toward finally beginning to live up to our creed. Many of the most hateful bigots climbed back under their rocks as more people than ever seemed to be free to pursue happiness without someone bludgeoning them with their faith. We saw women’s rights take many steps forward. We saw the Civil Rights Movement bring black Americans far up the social ladder. Thurgood Marshall became a Supreme Court Justice, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, soon opening the doors for black athletes to compete in all sports. Black actors and actresses began to find real roles in movies. Big steps forward in the high profile limelight, which served as a beacon of hope for others, but much work remained for the vast majority of minorities. Later, LGBTQ people began to score major victories in their pursuit of happiness, even winning the right to marry (at least in some places). To cap it all off, we got to witness one of the most iconic moments in all of US history, the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president, who went on to preside over 8 years of tremendous economic growth, bringing the nation from the brink of financial ruin back to prosperity.

But all the while, beneath the surface, bubbled a cauldron of stagnant hate and bigotry. It began to slowly resurface through the conservative vents of talk radio, Fox News, and social media. This vitriolic magma began to force its way up to the surface and became the lava of misinformation and mendacious propaganda. That lava became a weapon and faith was at its core. Hateful whispers about the “Muslim from Kenya” turned to shouts. One of the leading shouters was none other than Donald Trump, who began to hint that he was going to throw his hat into the ring for a presidential run in 2016. Everyone laughed back then, but no one is laughing now.

Trump masterfully gained a stranglehold on the religious right although a thorough and meticulous review of his history would turn up not one iota of evidence that he had ever been a man of faith. Yet, inexplicably, his largest support base became white, rural, conservative Christians. The remarkably unfair Electoral College process did the rest and, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million, Trump convinced his religious minions to do his bidding and weaponize their faith.

Today, our president honors the man whom Native Americans consider the American Hitler, Andrew Jackson, by hanging his portrait in the Oval Office. Today, we vilify African Americans for peacefully demonstrating during the National Anthem in order to shed light on the injustices they see and live with every day–conform or get out, they are told. Today, we attempt to wall out our neighbors to the south when they try to seek refuge in the lands that we took from them. We separate the children from their parents destroying families because, after all, God wanted us to have that land and those people will try to destroy everything we’ve built. Today, people use their faith in an attempt to deny LGBTQ couples of even the most basic of services and demand their loving marriages to be nullified and that they be barred from pursuing the happiness of raising children.

Faith is once again being weaponized in an effort to blast away at rights gained through more than a century of sacrifice under the cover of MAGA hats and the slogan of “America First”.

When we see people of faith lauding the president for trying to “make America great again”, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they are really saying. The “good old days”, for them, harkens back to a time when using faith as a weapon was widely accepted and gained them status at the expense of millions who didn’t conform to their norms.

Using faith as a weapon serves only to deny others their right to pursue happiness.

 

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