When the towns in this valley were founded in the 1700s, a Congregational Church was too. The same was true across New England. The taxes paid to the town went in part to fund the church and to pay a local Congregational minister. No other churches were supported because the Congregational church was the “established,” or official, church in Vermont.
Times have changed. That’s a good thing. Now religious institutions support their own clergy and attend to their own needs, and we don’t have an official state religion anymore. I find it comforting to know that the people who come through the doors of the church I serve on Sunday mornings do so because they want to, not because they have to do so. And now, in our valley, people of all faiths live side by side and are afforded equal legitimacy under the law.
That doesn’t mean that people of faith are not involved in the public square. We are. Congregationalist, Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Episcopalian, and more. We try to be good citizens, and good neighbors, because that’s what our given moral codes tell us to do. We may even stand up and advocate for change because of those beliefs in the public arena.
Sometimes, though, we forget that our neighbors may believe differently than we do. The Christian prayer that I may love to say, and that speaks so meaningfully to me, may not be inclusive of those in the room who are not Christian. If it is said in a Christian place of worship, that’s to be expected. I don’t go to a synagogue, for instance, and expect the prayers to change for me. But if it’s in a nonreligious space where our neighbors of all creeds and beliefs are gathered, that exclusion becomes problematic.
One of the things my Christian faith tells me to do is to love my neighbors as myself. I do not believe I can do that when I am not respecting the fact that they believe differently than I do. I believe being true to my faith means respecting that my neighbors, including other Christians, are free to hold whatever beliefs they hold. And I also believe that means that I have an obligation to protect their rights to equal recognition in our community life together.
I’m not a “throw the baby out with the bath water” thinker on this. I believe there is room for recognition of something greater than ourselves in our life together. Recently I was honored to give the opening devotional for the day at the Statehouse in Montpelier. Members of all faiths compose our state government, and so my devotional focused on the God-given grace of living in a place that values, as our state motto says, “freedom and unity.”
We are free to believe as we choose. We are free to practice our faith. But we are also bound by our unity, and we are not free to impose our faith on others in a way that disenfranchises them. We become responsible citizens, and responsible believers, by respecting the freedom that people of all faiths united have worked so hard to build, and given their lives to protect. (As someone who comes from a family of career military and government personnel, many of whom hold different faith beliefs, this is especially sacred to me.)
When Vermont saw fit to remove my denomination as the official state religion, they freed us both. They freed those who believed differently from us to worship in the ways that they saw fit. But they also freed my church to believe as we saw fit, unencumbered by, and protected from, politics. I’m thankful for that freedom, both as a pastor and as a citizen. And I’m thankful that it applies to my neighbors as well.
You may disagree theologically with me about this. And I may disagree with you too. But that’s the beauty of this country.
Because if separation of church and state really exists, at the end of the day neither one of our faiths should be afforded greater legitimacy in our civic life together.