PADUCAH — Your freedoms and rights are laid out in our nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Among the rights listed in the First Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. It reads, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Over the course of our nation’s nearly 250-year history Americans have grappled with the concept and practice of that American Truth.
However, it’s a concept Pastor Dan Summerlin of Lone Oak First Baptist Church embraces, and he said it’s clear what the founding fathers envisioned.
“Basically, the government said ‘We’re going to have hands off when it comes to religion.’ What they intended was the idea that individuals in the United States could worship the God they chose in their homes and their house of worship without interference from the government,” Summerlin said.
Millions of Americans believe our founding fathers created our government on Christian values and beliefs, and consider the United States to be a Christian nation.
“The principles they laid out were based upon Christian principles. I mean, even the Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal, endowed by the creator, unalienable rights. No one would think of that in that day. The idea that all people were created equal was unheard of,” Summerlin said.
Organizations like Americans United argue the U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document and contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ, and advocate for the separation of church and state.
That is accurate, but Christians note certain wording in the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”
“And again, the Declaration of Independence, toward the end of it, talks about God who is a God of judgement. That’s a Christian God as opposed to a deist. A deist wouldn’t care. They talked about providence. Again, a deist wouldn’t care about providence,” Summerlin said.
Pastor J. Gottman teaches a world religions class at West Kentucky Community and Technical College. His course covers all world religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.
“My goal is not to indoctrinate them or convince them they need to be any one faith tradition. Rather, I want them to have the information and to be able to ask the questions,” Gottman said.
Gottman said he hopes a class like that sparks critical thinking and life-long learning in their own faith journey in a time where our differences appear to divide Americans instead of unite them.
“As the world shrinks with the internet, and communication, and travel, you bump into people all the time who are different from you — Not just look different, but have different faith traditions. I sometimes struggle with the term ‘Christian nation,’ because that takes on a lot of loaded terminology. Because, are we talking about Roman Catholics? Are we talking about Protestants? If we’re talking about Protestants, which branch of Protestant faith are we talking about? Because there can be a wide variety of understandings of what it means to be Christian,” Gottman said.
The Pew Research Center: Religious Landscape Study shows 70.6% of Americans identify as a Christian; 5.9% identify as belonging to non-Christian religions, such as Judaism and Islam; the remaining 23.4% identify as other, which includes atheist or agnostic individuals.
The Islamic Center of Paducah is where Imam Hassan Ali leads prayer services. He said learning about other faiths is important in America today.
“Some people are truly ignorant. They have no idea how a prayer service is for a Muslim. And it’s not their fault either. It’s just that they’ve never had the opportunity meet it, meet a Muslim. I think a recent survey of Americans, more than 35 or 40 percent of Americans said they’ve never actually met a Muslim in their lifetime,” Ali said.That’s why Ali welcomes people to come and learn about the Muslim faith. He also reminds people that the constitution –not religion — is the law of the land.
“It surpasses everybody, you know what I mean? Even when we elect a president into office, he is there to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, you know, plain and period, simple. It has nothing to do with me, or if he’s a Christian or a Baptist or a Protestant. The United States Constitution is No. 1 and has to be, and that’s as such is your job description is,” Ali said.
An organized Jewish community has existed in Paducah since the mid 1860s. Today, worshipers gather at Temple Israel.
Congregation president Dr. Laurie Ballew said learning about other religions is just as important as exercising our right to freedom of religion.
“Education is enlightenment, and if we’re educated about someone else’s religion, we don’t fear it. Fear is what brings about prejudice — fear of the difference, the xenophobia,” Ballew said.
Ballew went on to say that her opinion is that faith, not religion, could play a larger role in the lives of our elected leaders.
“I don’t necessarily think religion needs to play a role in government, but I think faith – the idea of taking care of our neighbor, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us — no matter what the form of religion — I think that should play a role in government,” Ballew said.
Americans celebrate freedom, new opportunities, and a better way of life. Religion and our freedom of it should not divide us from our neighbors. Rather, we should celebrate it.
“Our Founding Fathers believed it could happen. The idea is that you have your faith, but you respect others to have their beliefs,” Summerlin said.
“Right now, as a person of faith and as a person who lives in the United States, I don’t always see loving other people coming out. And that’s a core foundational element for Jews, Christians, and people of the Muslim faith. So, when there’s hate speech and an unwillingness to acknowledge the difference in someone else, you don’t have to accept it, you don’t have to like it, but at least treat them — treat them as a human being,” Gottman said.