The lack of any real religious warfare through two centuries of American history flows from the fact that on issues of faith, as on many matters, we stand with Mr. Jefferson.
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god." Thomas Jefferson wrote in his essential "Notes on the State of Virginia." "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,"
But what if it does?
What if religion does pick people’s pockets? What if it does break, if not the legs of many Americans, then their hearts?
We may be about to find out.
Modern Americans gape in incomprehension at the number of Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Protestants who have come to extended and bloody blows over nothing more than the fact that one group feared that having the other group around was a threat to their way of life.
America has risen above that. The success has been imperfect, with prejudice against different groups, resistance to intermarriage and, depending on local traditions, a paucity of Catholics, Jews or Mormons in positions of power.
The most dismal failure to stick to our creed of live and let live was the violence visited upon the early incarnations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least until Brigham Young brought his followers out of the wilderness and into the Salt Lake Valley.
Now the LDS church, among others, is flirting with disaster by claiming not just the honored American right to worship in their own way, but the power to control the behavior of others.
There are people, businesses and state legislatures claiming their own religious freedom demands the right to opt out of federal health care reform, increasing other people’s health care costs, or to deny equal rights to same-sex couples, picking whole households’ pockets of tax, inheritance and other financial benefits.
Faith has been a motivation for many great accomplishments, from the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement to efforts to protect the rights of immigrants and, in some cases, of gays and lesbians. But, in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, who used the language of faith to great effect, those arguments were never dependent on the invocation of religious belief alone. They appealed to reason, to the secular creed of the Declaration of Independence, to the better angels of our nature.
Even in Utah, politicians and pundits arguing for laws that happen to parallel LDS teachings on liquor, tobacco and sex usually at least go through the motions of claiming, with varying degrees of success, scientific and secular underpinnings for their proposals. That allows those who disagree to do so on those same secular grounds, without having to attack anyone’s religious faith.
But this new and troublesome practice of turning religious independence into religious conflict endangers everyone, religious institutions most of all. To claim, as at least one member of the Utah Legislature does, that religious freedom and same-sex marriage cannot peacefully coexist is more of a threat to religion than it is to gay rights.
The fact that most remaining opposition to same-sex marriage is perceived to be based on religious dogma is a key reason why the younger generation is increasingly turning its back on organized religions of all types.
Religious institutions risk losing both their high-ground ability to influence society for good, as well as their down-to-earth tax exemptions, unless they revert to the American view of religious faith as a rock to anchor believers in times of trouble, not a stone to throw at those who make them uncomfortable.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has never picked a pocket nor broken a leg.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.