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Interfaith Day of Reflection

 Matt McNeil

Oklahoma Atheists

STOP (Stop Theocracy in Oklahoma Policy)

"There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home, or Heaven; that word is Liberty."  These timeless words are carved upon the tombstone of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a pivotal but oft forgotten 19th century American woman who spent her life in the pursuit of liberty and justice, for the consummation of the very things which our Constitution was initially written to ensure for all citizens of this Republic.

Now, think about it -- Gage was born into (and died in) a world in which women were denied the vote.  They could not own property on their own in many states, and were deemed unfit to serve in most public offices.  Husbands in many states could legally beat their wives, and higher education was all but completely denied to the vast majority of American women.

Now, in this environment of hostility and outright prejudice, Gage labored to gain suffrage for women.  She championed the cause of Church/State separation in the 1880's, at a time when theocrats not unlike those we see today worked to spread the spurious, majoritarian lie that American democracy was somehow subordinate to the whims of this sect or that.  Gage fought slavery for the great evil that it was, and endeavored to abolish the horrific (and then widespread) practice of child labor.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Why is he talking about a 19th century suffragette/reformer?  Aren't we here to celebrate freedom of conscience and a governmental system that is supposed to be free of sectarian preferences?"

I bring up Gage's memory to drive home one message today -- PERSEVERANCE.  So often, it's remarkably simple to get distracted, to lose sight of what we are fighting for. 

Especially in the current socio-political environment, we who stand up for diversity and strict separation can (and often do) get remarkably discouraged.  We need events such as today's gathering to remind us that we are not alone, to assure us that the dark forces which would gladly restrict liberty and destroy diversity must struggle against not only us, but millions upon millions more like us, good Americans who refuse to allow 228 years of success to be spoiled by sectarianism and divisiveness and historical revisionism.

Gage provides a perfect example of perseverance in the most difficult of times.  Her activism shines as a beacon to those of us who would become crestfallen, and gives hope to those of us who would grow cynical and indifferent to the cause of liberty.

Here was a woman who endured the government intercepting her mail.  Here was a woman who gladly went to prison after daring to "buck the system" put in place by men in power. (Gage reminded us all that this nation ruled by law was originally founded upon the disobedience to unjust laws.  Let us never forget that.)  Here was a woman who harbored runaway slaves at great personal cost and risk.  Here was a woman willing to endure the slings and arrows of her most vicious detractors.  Here was a woman who silenced her foes not with threats nor with censorship nor with blind wrath, but with careful, clear, and irrefutable arguments, arguments based (as are our arguments) solely upon reason and solid, American values.

We can take inspiration from Gage as we struggle to rebuild the wall of separation between Church and State in this country.  We can learn from her actions as we labor to remind ourselves and the world that this is a country of diversity -- E Pluribus Unum -- from many, ONE. We can see in Gage's life lessons on how to take hope even when all seems hopeless.  We can (and must) gird our loins and work for liberty for the rest of our lives, even as Gage did.

Yes, liberty is the sweetest word that any of us will ever hear.  Whether fundamentalist or progressive, theist or non-theist, Buddhist or Muslim, Hindu or Christian, Jewish or Gentile, we all owe it to the Republic to take up the cause of liberty and to persevere as we fight the good fight.  Gage would expect no less of us.



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