Why can't we talk about religion?


I read an article this week about a restaurant in nearby Winston-Salem, Mary's Gourmet Diner, where they occasionally give a discount for praying in public. Apparently, this has been happening for years, but the news of it has just hit social media, and has become very controversial. In an interview given to The Blaze, an online news organization, restaurant owner Mary Haglund's generosity is described: 'the “gift” she gives customers has nothing to do with a specific religious perspective, ... she never advertises the discount and ... it’s something staffers sporadically offer only when they feel compelled to do so. “It’s just a moment or faithfulness about the plate of food,” she said. “It’s not even a policy — it’s [something] we only do when we’re moved to do it.”' Nonetheless, her actions have sparked debate. On the Mary's Gourmet Diner Facebook page, there are hundreds of comments, ranging from:

'Bravo to you! Nothing wrong with a little prayer thanking God for the wonderful food you are able to eat!' to:

'It is a violation of federal law for a place of public accommodation to discriminate on the basis of religion,' to:

'Perhaps if it was a "customer appreciation" discount rather than a "praying in public" discount this wouldn't be an issue. It's fine to appreciate customers, but I would argue that thanking the chef, wait staff, and restaurant owner come before thanking any God. I'd be concerned if someone spent more time thanking a god rather than the people who did the work,' to:

'Do I get a discount for laying down a rug and praying to Mecca? Do I get a discount for being thankful and grateful to the wait staff? This is absurd. Christians only want religious freedom and religious favoritism when it applies to them,' to things far more bizarre and inflammatory.

I realize this is the Internet, where anything can be controversial and anyone can be argumentative, but I was also taken aback by the energy and range of responses to this woman's acts of generosity. I often encourage Christians to speak publicly of our faith, and this has just convinced me more that we should. Even though this article, and this restaurant, are not specifically talking about Christians (Mary Haglund mentions 'opening the heart chakra' on her restaurant's Facebook page), the argument quickly becomes about Christians discriminating against others or receiving special treatment. I find this troubling, though not surprising, and not entirely undeserved. It is true that Christians have a history and a tendency to come on a little strong with our beliefs, sometimes a lot strong.

However, if we live in a world where being grateful to God for the meal we are about to receive is considered worthy of ridicule, then we live in a world that needs to know more about the love of God, not less. If we really believe that we live in a world of forgiveness, peacefulness, care of others and loving our neighbors as ourselves, then we should not be afraid to show that in public, even if it means that others misunderstand or characterize us unfairly. It also means that we should be able to share public space, in restaurants and on the Internet, with others who have differing beliefs, without judgment or fear.

Religion is, of course, far more than an extra-curricular activity, a preference or a lifestyle. To believe that God created and sustains our own lives and the lives of every being on the planet is a fundamental worldview, one that collides with others who hold different religious beliefs, and those who eschew religion. We can choose not to discuss this, or to do so only with suspicion and exaggeration, but it only deepens our estrangement. It does nothing to bring us closer to peace, and it is not particularly faithful. And it has consequences, as we see, all over the world, from restaurants to wars.

The Huffington Post shared an article recently about how the renewed Israeli/Palestinian violence has strained interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. It quotes a New York University chaplain, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, as saying, "In order to foster interfaith relations, it's important to not talk about things that separate people."

With all due respect, I must disagree with his viewpoint. Not sharing our faith, especially those things we believe in opposition to one another, only adds to the strain and suspicion around what it is we do believe. It suggests that it is impossible for us to believe differently and still love one another, which is an affront to those who claim that nothing is impossible with God.

Further, If we do not learn to share our religious differences, big and small, peacefully and faithfully, we are ceding territory in all of our lives to those who do go to extremes of intolerance and even violence in the name of religion. We are, in a way, conceding that we suspect they might be right. If we cannot discuss or express our religious beliefs in public settings, then maybe we really are afraid that to do so would lead inevitably to hatred. I don't think we can let this stand, no matter what our religious (or non-religious) beliefs. If we are people of faith, we need to show that we have faith that God really does have the last word, and that word is always love.