By Zachary Bailes
The New York Times shares the story of Jessica Ahlquist, 16, who lives in Cranston, R.I., enjoys Harry Potter, and is an atheist. She also happens to be on the winning side of a lawsuit against the school district, forcing removal of a prayer from the wall of her high school auditorium — where it had hung for 49 years.
People are incensed. The community, heavily populated by Catholics, has wreaked havoc upon this young woman’s life. Needing police escorts to school and even receiving threats, Ahlquist is now living anything but a “normal” teenager’s life.
An irony not lost on students of history is that Roger Williams, the prodigious 17th century rabble-rouser, founded America’s First Baptist Church in nearby Providence in the name of “soul freedom” after banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Now the eventual state founded by the man who championed religious liberty long before it was popular (and some might contend that it still isn’t) appears antagonistic toward the idea.
Yes, religious liberty extends to those who choose not to participate in religion. One side effect of American fundamentalism’s polarizing effect upon society is the poor taste religion leaves in many people’s mouths. According to the Pew Research Forum, the second-largest religious contingency behind Christians are not Muslims — those feared so much by conservatives — but the “religiously unaffiliated.” They comprise a whopping 16 percent of the population and include agnostics, atheists and those who are spiritual but not religious.
The irony doesn’t stop there, however.
Not too long ago it wasn’t a good idea to announce in public that you were Catholic. John F. Kennedy had to make a case to Southern Baptist ministers in 1960 that if he were elected president papal rule would not seep into the Oval Office. http://usinfo.org/docs/democracy/66.htm
Where I grew up Protestants did not date or associate with Catholics. Catholics were seen as the “other” and for some the sentiment still exists. If anything, the Catholic community in Cranston should protect Ahlquist and others because they share a similar story.
While fundamentalists quote the Bible and bemoan “secularization,” Ahlquist and others simply want to get back to reading Harry Potter and not have religion they do not subscribe to being shoved down their throats. Who can blame her? I doubt that those same Christian citizens would want a Muslim prayer adorning the wall of their school.
The greatest irony of all is that in all of this, the Baptist voice stays silent. If fundamentalist Baptists want to preach hell-fire-damnation, the Constitution entitles them to do so. Those that pronounce, “We are a Christian nation,” however, don’t seem to realize that if they had done that in Roger Williams’ day they might have found themselves meandering through the wilderness alongside him.
Baptists, Catholics and atheists don’t agree on much, but they share a common story: religious oppression. Our forebear believed that faith and God were big enough that they did not need the sword of coercion or the endorsement of a government. Baptists, fundamentalist or not, should stand up and protect the rights of atheists, even if one believes their souls are damned for hell.