The United States of America is arguably the most religiously tolerant nation in the world, probably in all of history. I would even venture to suggest that we are not only tolerant of all faiths; we encourage the free expression of those faiths.
I believe I can speak from a certain level of experience here. Having now served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-one years, I have had the distinct privilege of knowing ministers of a variety of religious faiths, several who are close friends. Within the Navy Chaplain Corps alone, there are represented a couple of hundred religious groups. Most are from various Protestant denominations (everything from Episcopalian to Four-Square Gospel), along with Roman Catholic priests (I even served with a priest from the Liberal Catholic Church. “Liberal” is a misnomer. They are far more conservative in theology and philosophy, following the teachings from the First Vatican Council, 1869-70), Jewish rabbis (Reformed and Conservative), those religious groups that are considered “cults” (Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists, and other religions that have the trappings of Christianity, but misinterpret the faith on some major doctrinal point – such as the deity of Jesus Christ), in recent years we have added Muslim imams (the two I have met and spent some time with have been delightful people), and just a few months ago the Navy commissioned the first ever Buddhist priest (She is in my reserve unit – yes, I said “she.” And she is a former Marine! Oorah!).
As chaplains we serve in the military to represent our individual religious faith groups. We respect each other; share a collegiality; encourage one another in the performance of our ministries; and even call upon each other when that particular faith group requires a minister to provide services. Let me give you two examples: When I was the command chaplain on one of our Navy ships, and before we would sail from port for a long deployment, I would contact the Catholic priest on base to come and hold a pre-deployment Mass for the Catholic sailors, usually held in the hangar bay. Or last year when I was the command chaplain at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, East Africa, my chaplain boss at Marine Forces Pacific (MarForPac) in Hawaii informed me he was sending me a Jewish rabbi (Navy chaplain) to provide ministry to Jewish military personnel and civilian workers during the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yum Kippur. This is all a marvelously enriching experience, serving beside those that I would probably never see in a civilian setting, let alone befriend. Theologically, we are miles apart. However, our respect and friendship is not based upon religious assimilation.
Diversity is foundational to us as Americans. We are diverse in our politics, diverse in our religious expression, diverse in our culture, and diverse in our philosophies. This is normally a healthy situation. But in recent days we are experiencing an orchestrated attempt to remove religious expression, particularly Christianity, from the public sector. No Nativity Scenes, no Ten Commandments, no “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, no religious expressions allowed on t-shirts worn in school, no teaching of Creationism alongside Evolution as a world philosophy in our public schools, and no tolerance for open debate on such issues as: abortion, public prayer, abstinence, use of condoms, parental rights, homosexuality, alternative lifestyles, child discipline, or euthanasia. The list could go on.
America was founded upon the teachings of the Christian faith, using the Holy Bible as the cornerstone. Our laws are based upon the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule – Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Those who claim to be Christian, who live their faith, who have had an encounter with Jesus Christ, who have been “born-again,” are the most tolerant people I have ever known. Why do I say this? It’s quite simple, really. When you’ve been confronted with the claims of Christ, you quickly realize you are utterly incapable of changing yourself. If change in you is to ever occur, it must come from outside you. That’s where Jesus literally comes in. He does not force you to bow before him in homage, all the while glowering with a threatening countenance that veritably shouts, “Or else!” Instead, he asks you to allow him to change you, to invite him into your heart, to be the Lord of your life.
That simple truth is what Christmas represents. It is the reason for the season. And it is also why it scares so many people. Change of any kind is threatening. For most, to even consider being changed into a better person, a godly person, a humble person is frightening to the extreme.
Make no mistake – Jesus came to change you. And he will, if you let him.
Once you’ve experienced this change, you’ll truly have a Merry Christmas!