In December, 2005, famed political commentator and economist Ben Stein appeared on CBS’ Sunday Morning show and made a short speech not on politics or economics, but on religion. In his speech, which can be read here, Stein courageously outlined what he saw as one of the more serious problems Americans faced at the time: religious intolerance and sensitivity. Now, five years later, this sentiment has perhaps never been more relevant. While more obvious examples of religious intolerance occur abroad, most notably among Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, religious sensitivity can be seen on an everyday basis right here in the U.S.
Every holiday season, for example, it seems Christmas becomes more and more taboo. One can no longer simply walk up to a stranger and say “merry Christmas” for fear that the stranger is Jewish or Muslim, and may be offended. Instead, it is “happy holidays”. Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that any mention of the Bible, Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or any other religious text or celebration in our schools is forbidden. Many Americans support this practice, as it prevents any possible singling-out of certain students, but others such as Mr. Stein believe that by refusing to acknowledge religion in our schools, a new generation of Americans is being taught to believe that religion itself is not something to be talked about and celebrated, but that it is something to be suppressed. In effect, rather than being a nation of tolerance and understanding, Americans are becoming more intolerant of religion than ever before, a trend Mr. Stein believes is leading to a more general decline in American values amongst our youth, a point driven home by the shootings in Arizona just a few days ago.
Americans pride themselves on living in a country where people of all races, ethnicities and religions can coexist and pursue the proverbial American Dream. However in reality, rather than celebrate all religions, many Americans suppress them, resulting in an increasingly secular society. When did this happen? When did simply celebrating your own religion in a free society become oppressive and insulting to someone who does not share your beliefs? When did core religious values become threatening to schoolchildren?
In a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution, this is simply unacceptable. In today’s shrinking world, international cultural, linguistic, and religious awareness should be a priority in American school systems. Instead, through our own weakness we forbid all religious discussion, resulting in an entire generation of Americans whose view of the world is entirely ethnocentric. This unfortunate reality is occurring worldwide, and until this trend is curbed, there may be little hope for reconciliation among religious groups who have been at odds for the past two thousand years.
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not saying I agree with everything Mr. Stein says, but I do agree that it is wrong to suppress religious discussion and worship in modern American society. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Atheist or Agnostic, it is your right as an American to believe what you wish to believe, however it is therefore also your neighbors’ right to believe whatever they believe. Regardless of our religion, what we should strive for is knowledge and understanding. In this way, American society may be strengthened and unified to prepare for the inevitable trials and tribulations in the years to come.