Separation of church and state is a huge issue to me as a liberal Democratic voter. To me, it is perhaps the most grievous issue facing our country today, because the notion of a theocracy and the fringes-yet-powerfuls' desire for it threatens the very existence of our democracy itself. Not only that, but the issue of separation of church and state is an umbrella over almost every conceivable discrete issue in the U.S.--how and if our children pray in school; what our children learn in school; how our children develop into adults and plan their families; whether or not they're entitled to healthcare, Social Security, and other social services based on their religion; how we as a nation manage our commerce and treasury; and how or if we go to war--and how we as a nation treat casualties of war, domestic or international.
The religious right-wingers' threat to our democratic society and way of life as a whole resonates with me on a much more personal, granular level, for reasons I will parlay at the jump.
My journey from being a child and eventually a woman of deep faith to being a content atheist is much more subdued than that of Julia Sweeney and much less revelation-worthy from the reverse religious experiences of former preacher Dan Barker, but no less passionate, years-long, and at times agonizing. Metaphorically speaking, it was a hard pill for me to swallow that, for many years in my youth and young adulthood, I was misusing religion in the way alcoholics misuse alcohol, and abusing myself within its frames in the same way drug addicts abuse themselves.
Dan Barker described the former me to a T when he wrote in his book Losing Faith in Faith (emphasis mine):
Religion is a powerful thing. Few can resist its charms and few can truly break its embrace. It is the siren who entices the wandering traveler with songs of love and desire and, once successful, turns a mind into stone. It is a Venus fly trap. Its attraction is like that of drugs to an addict who, wishing to be free and happy, becomes trapped and miserable. But the saddest part of the dependency is the fact that most participants are willing victims. They think they are happy.
They believe religion has kept its promises and have no desire to search elsewhere. They are deeply in love with their faith and have been blinded by that love--blinded to the point of unquestioning sacrifice.
I disagree in part with Barker's generalizations about all people of faith, which is why I'm adding this note of caution and a disclaimer: in relating my own story of religion addiction, in no way do I intend to disparage the millions of people, including the good progressive people of faith here at DailyKOS, who do have a healthy relationship with their faiths, and who do treat other human beings well and strive to serve them genuinely in their actions and words. I hope I am not trivializing people's faith by making this comparison, but it is the only one I can think of at the moment that seems most apt: one can still enjoy a fine Italian wine, a hoppy ale, or a smooth Hennessy on the rocks without falling prey to alcoholism; an alcoholic, however, cannot.
I am that alcoholic, and abstaining from religion for the rest of my life, despite the occasional temptations and comfort of familiar rituals and family gatherings in a pretty church, will ensure for me that I don't ruin my life. Immersed in the Venus trap of my own unhealthy relationship to religion, I very nearly did.
I'm not going to turn this into a poor-me diary about how my childhood was so tough and that's what led me down the path to self-medicating via the Bible of the Month. Let's suffice it to say that I rarely if ever had a truly emotionally safe place to come home to or to go to school. As a "square-peg" in both my home life and among my school-aged peers, I couldn't find refuge at either home or outside of home, so I buried myself under mounds of theology and indoctrination. (Going to a Catholic school didn't help matters much.)
Earlier this year, I wrote a lengthy comment that describes some of this indoctrination in often excruciating detail. That comment was basically the Reader's Digest version of how I viewed sexuality through the unhealthy prism of my "faith addiction" in my teens and early-to-mid-twenties.
Here's an excerpt:
I was raised in a very strict Catholic household where sex before marriage AND divorce were condemned. My parents ...(snip for brevity)... instructed us in very harsh terms that they would be disappointed with my sister and I if we were to have premarital sex. This obviously led to my sister and I having a very unhealthy view of not only our own bodies, but of sexuality and marriage in general...
(snip for brevity)
My sister ended up blowing off their and the Church's sage advice; but I was a much more serious gal and took it very seriously--much to my peril. I dated the same asshole guy throughout college; and even though we engaged in some heavy-petting, we refrained from "The Act" until our unfortunate wedding night. As our wedding date approached, I had horrible feelings that I was making the wrong choice; but blew those feelings off as "pre-wedding jitters" and went for it anyway--feeling guilt for having "sexual feelings" for the guy with whom I presumed God wanted me to spend my life.
Needless to say, my marriage to my first husband was horrible, and it had terrible consequences on my life even after we blew apart and finally divorced five years later (thankfully, with no kids). I cruelly projected the negative feelings of my bad marriage onto other people, and as a result, deservedly lost several good friends. As a result of getting divorced (after MUCH soul-searching and "divorcing" myself mentally from the guilt of the Catholic Church--in fact, from the Church itself), I felt shackled with guilt and bad feelings from which I took a LONG time to heal and start dating again...(snip)...My twenties in general were just a sucky time that I don't look upon with much fondness at all.
And mind you, that was just how my self-indoctrination affected my sexuality and romantic relationships--just one element of what was basically my perverting reality. As a result of my neurotic attachments to doctrine and faith, I often didn't have a solid grip on reality. I failed to mention above that, during the years in college, in which I was dating my first husband, I transferred to another university and then back to the college I first attended after a year, because being away from the comfort of my first and only really serious relationship with a guy was too much for me to handle. I kept lying to myself--and others--about the real reason I made this poor decision, and of course I kept praying about it, but with no solid answers other than my wishful thinking. I changed majors a total of four times before FINALLY changing it back to my original major, English, in my senior year. It was a damn good thing I had a scholarship, or else I or my parents would've been broke on loans while I put together my Frankenstein degree.
My first attempt at breaking this bad cycle of cluelessness--and religion--came near my college graduation. I felt like I should've been happy being at my original, familiar alma mater, with my fiance and upcoming marriage, but I was miserable. I went to an evangelical Catholic college retreat (yes, there are such things in Texas!) and ended up feeling so alienated and troubled by the other willing attendees that I broke down sobbing in my Honda with no air conditioning as I left the retreat parking lot. I figured, correctly, that the problem was religion and my refusal to accept some things that didn't ring true with me; yet it was only one of the problems. It would have been better for me to postpone my wedding till I had some things figured out, like what I was going to do for a job when all I had was a generalistic liberal-arts degree, and what I wanted to do with my life in general, but my delusions of grandeur and fantasies of becoming a musician or filmmaker or whatever--and my own immaturity--prevented me from doing anything other than running on the collision course I was already on. I had zero clue as to what I was going to do with my life, and the only solution I could find was to get married right after college and pray about it later.
Which led to a bad marriage, which I escaped with dead-end jobs and fantasizing that my life was somehow more important than it actually was, because I was constantly living in delusions of grandeur. I then got caught up in another religion--Judaism--to which I began studying and practicing during the worst and last years of my ill-fated first marriage. I've written a whole essay on that experience, which I will someday post on the Web whenever I get up the chutzpah. My divorce, more dead-end jobs, and a final meltdown in the Czech Republic on a volunteer trip gone wrong finally, exhaustingly led me to a period of stasis and simply taking time out to breathe and grow, finally, into a woman at age 27.
By the time I had met my future husband now, I had already started to pick up the pieces and rebuild my life. I got a decent ground-level, if unglamorous and temporarily unfulfilling, job as a technical writer, shared a house with several women, and just stopped to listen to my heart and my own clear vision for life as it was for awhile. And yes, I also sought counseling and medication, which I realize now would have benefited me tremendously had I started taking it ten years or so earlier. I learned to build solid friendships with good people I admire and love, learned to give of myself and try to make a difference in other peoples' lives, and learned to live in the world as it existed and not how an ancient text defined it for me.
At last month's YearlyKOS, I attended a forum on how secular and religious progressives could work together to achieve mutual progressive goals. I was heartened to listen to one of the young speakers (name withheld for confidentiality), who was an evangelical Christian who was newly leaving her right-wing background and church community, but not her faith. She insisted that we "long-timers" in the secular/religious coalition of progressives treat newcomers like her gently, because, as she put it, "we need a soft landing."
I thought about her remarks for a long while after that forum, and I have to admit I was initially put off by her seemingly childlike request. When I lost my addiction to faith and the perceived need for it, it was anything BUT a "soft landing," but more like the cold, hard reality of being an adult and accepting things you sometimes don't want to hear. However, I had to feel compassion for her, because at least on a distant level, I really did know what she was going through.
My husband and I are also in the process of adopting out of the foster-care system. We don't know which child or children we will eventually call our son/s and/or daughter/s, but we've learned the painful, heartbreaking stories of what untold numbers of children in the foster system have gone through: sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, starvation, abandonment, homelessness, and woefully more. What kind of parents would we be if we didn't give them a permanent escape from that landscape of misery? What kind of parents would we be if we didn't give them a firm foundation, yet safe and comfortable and loving place to come home to? A soft landing, if you will? At the end of the day, isn't that what being liberal is all about? Realizing that we are in this same boat of mortal Earth, and wouldn't our temporary and precious lives be the better for it if we gave one another a "soft landing" in some form or another?
So that, in a cavernous nutshell, is what worries me about the erosion of separation of church and state, and is why I will fight like hell in my lifetime to prevent a resurgence of the poisoned ideals that brought us right-wing megachurches and George W. Bush. Although the popularity of the Republican Party and its Religious Right-triggered "hot-button" culture-war issues is starting to wane, I don't think I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that the Religious Right's influence is gone and over. In other words, I don't think I can ever rest comfortably, because fundamentalists and their narrow, myopic view of how all of us should live by their strictures will always be with us, like it or not. Yes, they present a narrow minority, and their influence is proving to be wearing thin on future generations; but as David Kuo so aptly puts it, we discount the fringes' all-consuming drive and their patience of Job at our peril, because their continual failures to transform our society will only make them hungrier.