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Conscience Magazine

American Diversity Includes the Right to Believe and the Right Not to Believe

February 19, 2014

I was struck by the review of Andrew Koppelman’s Defending American Religious Neutrality (Vol. XXXIV, No. 3) because it reminded me of the prejudice I experienced first-hand during the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. In the summer of 1960, I was a 12-year-old living in Sikeston, Mo., a small town in the boot-heel of Missouri with a well-earned reputation as being more socially compatible with Mississippi than Missouri. I still distinctly remember sitting in a barber chair and listening with horror to Southern Baptists berating the “papist” John Kennedy and his church. That experience has defined my appreciation of the separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution.

The simple truth is that democracy, for all its rough-and-tumble nature, is a delicate dance that has been critical to our development as a nation. America has demonstrated the ability to tolerate the millions who have come to our shores from a kaleidoscope of cultures, societies and other diverse backgrounds. Our country has woven together previously unimagined possibilities and strengths, but the whole cloth can be damaged by tearing out certain threads because new patterns are seen as threatening. I never wish any other child to experience the sense of isolation experienced in 1960 by this young Catholic while listening to the fear some felt at the prospect of a Catholic president.

Our doctrines and dogma are critically important to who we are. As Americans, we must equally value the precious right of others to not accept those doctrines. Otherwise the entire system collapses under the fierce internal pressures of dogmatic dispute.

Centertown, Mo.