“I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians… [W]here did the idea come from that… we aren’t allowed to worship God?”
— Ben Stein, from CBS Sunday Morning, Dec. 18, 2005
It’s not uncommon for me to ask my youngest son Izzy a relatively simple question, such as “Would you like to eat something?” or “Do you need a ride later today to hang out with friends?” and for the response to be, “I don’t know.” On such occasions, I am in the habit of saying, “I’ll ask the other Izzy.”
The implication is there is a parallel universe that contains a parallel Izzy who does know whether he’s hungry or needs a ride somewhere. However, it’s just a little private joke of mine. In reality, there is only one Izzy: The version who can earn straight A’s in school but seems incapable of taking a definitive stand on whether or not he’d like a sandwich.
Our family, including our inscrutable son, lives in Bellevue, home to an ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse population. Within a 10-minute drive of our home are dozens of religious institutions. I can find churches of numerous denominations — Baptist, Catholic, Christian Reformed, Foursquare, Episcopal, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, and several others — services available in multiple languages — English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese — as well the Jewish Day School, three synagogues, a Chabad House, a mosque, and two Bahai centers. Broaden the radius to 20 miles, and the number of houses of worship mushrooms literally into the hundreds. It’s difficult to drive three blocks around here without passing at least one church.
A common theme of the December holiday season is the complaint that religion in our society is under attack, as reflected in the quote above by Ben Stein. The idea that in America Jews and Christians get “pushed around” and aren’t allowed to “worship God” isn’t merely wrong, it’s laughably, absurdly and ludicrously wrong. Ben Stein must believe in a parallel America, one that forbids religious worship, like the Soviet Union did under Communism. Sadly, many countries around the globe still experience a suppression of their freedom of religion, such as China and Saudi Arabia.
What Stein seems to either not understand, or deliberately obfuscate, is that the U.S. is not a theocracy — there is no official government religion. As the First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Note the two powerful ideas of the founding fathers contained in this passage. The American government won’t establish any single religion, but at the same time it shall not prohibit the exercise of any faith. Could there be a more perfect expression of religious freedom? The government doesn’t seek to impose an official, state-sanctioned form of belief, and every citizen can choose to worship — or choose not to — according to his or her heart’s desire.
Religion is dynamic, vibrant and deeply woven into the fabric of American life. Arguing that Americans are not allowed to worship God is like making the claim we are forbidden to play baseball, eat popcorn or wear sunscreen. A search for books under the topic “Religion” on Amazon.com yields over one million choices, which sounds about right, given the incredible religious diversity in America. To maintain that religious expression is prohibited is preposterous and proven false by simply driving a couple of miles down any busy street in any town in our nation and taking note of all the churches.
One might rephrase the quote above, and ask of Ben Stein where he got the idea that Americans aren’t allowed to worship God. While we’re at it, perhaps in his parallel universe, which contains an America that is utterly unrecognizable to the rest of us, we can ask him if he knows whether Izzy would like a snack.