Living the American dream up north

Thoughts on religious freedom from a pastor who retired to Benzie County.

JACK HARNISH
Retired pastor, Detroit Conference

I am not a native of “Up North”. I was born in Pennsylvania, lived most of my live south of “The Bridge” (I mean the Zilwaukee Bridge) and served churches in Southeast Michigan. Almost 50 years ago, I married into a family who had vacationed in Leelanau Country for three generations and as a newcomer, I fell in love with this corner of the world. So when we retired Judy and I intentionally chose to relocate here. We are Up North in Benzie County by choice and we love it.

But as with every place and every choice there is a dark side as well–sometimes hidden, but still there. Recently it showed itself in the ugly Facebook comments of the Kalkaska village President when he reposted racist comments calling  for the death of Muslims. He is defending himself by claiming his First Amendment right to free speech and I would not deny him that privilege, even if his comments are outrageous. It’s not a question of whether he HAS the right to speak, it is a question of whether it IS right to speak in such terms, especially for a person elected to lead and represent his community. When I was the pastor of a church, I often had to balance my civil right to speak my mind with my role as the pastor of a congregation. Obviously Mr. Sieting  doesn’t see a conflict between voicing his personal bigotry and his role as a village president, and that is regrettable.

My deeper concern is that he represents a part of life Up North which may be a minority point of view but is still quite troubling. Because our communities are so overwhelmingly white, it is easy to deny the latent racism that can sometimes lie just below the surface. Since there are so few Muslims or other religious minorities in our communities, it is easy to pretend that everyone is just like me—a good, faithful, white, Protestant, American Christian—and unconsciously buy into religious prejudice as well.

Around the Fourth of July I saw several church bulletin boards with the quotation “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”. It comes from Psalm 33 and it is interesting to think about the context. First, the Psalms where written by and for the Hebrew people, so the God they are speaking of was the God of Israel, the God of Jews. If taken literally it would represent Judaism. Does that mean these churches think America is a “Jewish nation”?  Second, Psalm 33 also says, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the people… The king is not saved by his great army. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its might it cannot save.” So if we are claiming “God as our Lord”, what does it say about our love affair with militarism and our support of a massive build up in the Defense budget? But I digress. 

My main thought for today is the fact is this nation of ours was established on the principle of the freedom of religion and the freedom to worship “each according to the dictates of his/her own heart.” It was clearly a central part of the Founders’ dream for this nation. The 1790 battles around the Barbary coast resulted in a treaty with Tripoli which clearly said, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion … it is declared that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall every produce an interruption of harmony existing between the two countries” and it specifically referred to “tranquility of Musselmen” and “no hostility against any Mehomitan nation”. (Their spelling for “Muslim”).  

When a village president speaks out against Muslims he is not only being offensive, he is undermining one of the basic foundational principles of the American Dream which should be reflected in all civic leadership, a respect for the freedom of religion.

To end where I began, I love living Up North, but it is not because I can escape religious and racial diversity in all of its complexity. Even if we have relatively few ethnic and religious minorities present in our communities, the commitment to the vision of a racially and religiously inclusive  community is central to what it means for me to be an American and I hope our elected officials will represent that commitment as well. It is essential to living  the American dream up north.  


Note: Rev. John E. Harnish is a retired United Methodist pastor living on Platte Lake in Benzie County.

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