Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Did "Religious" Become a Bad Word?

Yesterday, in the context of a conversation about the Republican primaries, a colleague expressed distrust for "religion." I think she (mostly) meant the religious beliefs on the Presidential candidates, and how these beliefs may influence their politics, but it was worded as a blanket statement about religion in general. I wanted to say, "You know I'm religious, right?" but I bit my tongue.

It never ceases to surprise me how negatively mental health professionals seem to view religion. Because I also have a graduate degree in theology, potential employers have asked me questions based on a range of insulting assumptions: that I will proselytize clients, discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, discourage birth control and/or abortion, or otherwise advance the agenda of the so-called "Religious Right." Now, I went to a Boston school noted for its liberal theology, and (in the same conversation with my colleage) have described myself as left of Democrat. I don't ascribe to any of the social principles of the Religious Right, and it makes me angry that they give everyone who's religious a bad name. However, it also makes me angry that open prejudice against religion is demonstrated - and accepted - in a field that is supposedly open-minded and respectful of diversity. When did "religious" become a bad word?

The profession of social work was begun by religious women - women who were committed to social justice because of their religious beliefs. The staunchest advocates for justice - all kinds of justice - that I've ever met have been people of deep faith. The vast majority of religious people are also respectful of other faith traditions, and do not try to impose their beliefs on others. With that combination - respecting a diversity of beliefs, and working for justice - how can religion be a bad thing?

Thinking about the current Republican candidates: much has been written about Mitt Romney's Mormanism, with a generally negative tenor. However, from what I've seen of his campaign, and through his time as governor, he hasn't based his political decisions on his religious beliefs. In contrast, Rick Santorum is unapologetic about basing his political platform on religious beliefs - with little apparent concern that much of the population does not share his ideology. That is a bigger concern for me. I think it's laudable for people, including politicians, to have faith...but not to impose that faith on others.

I think similarly about the relationship between my own faith and work. I am motivated by my religious beliefs, and related values of justice and service, to do this work, and I came to the work through a sense of calling or vocation. But that's about me - what makes it meaningful for me, and gets me out of bed every morning. It's not about my clients, whom I do not expect to share my beliefs, and to whom I rarely reveal anything about my faith background. In my work, I'm much more interested in what matters to them - what gets them out of bed in the morning.

So, please don't make assumptions about my faith based on the "Religious Right," and don't insult me by suggesting my agenda is conversion rather than service. Let's respect faith as an asset, and not fear it, or write it off as a liability.

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