I'm not the kind of person who would argue that because things are better than they used to be, we shouldn't strive to make things even better. We should continue to do everything we can to make our country as fair as possible for everyone, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. Though progress is slow, I think most Americans agree with this in principle.
There are, however, several groups of people who are still discriminated against in public and private life in the United States. One such group is non-Christians. Although this has been an issue in my life for years, it was recently brought to my attention once again when a friend commented on his environment at work. In his office, Christians are comfortable enough to chat away about church functions and religious convictions; they're even comfortable with inviting him to their church events and asking him whether he has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He, on the other hand, doesn't feel at all comfortable expressing his agnosticism at work. He is also troubled over how to respond to their religious overtures. As an office minority, he worries that he'll face professional repercussions if he tells his co-workers how he really feels about religion.
When he initially described this scenario to me, I was struck by the similarities between his position and the position of someone being sexually harassed in the workplace. In both cases, the person feels his or her privacy is being invaded, but feels helpless to stop the harassment. If sexual harassment is inappropriate to the workplace, then perhaps religious harassment is too.
I know how my friend feels, since I, too, have felt the pressures of Christianity in the workplace. At one of my former workplaces, several co-workers and I were having a conversation over lunch, a fairly average kind of lunchtime chat. It was some sort of church discussion, and all of a sudden I realized that they were just assuming I was a Christian. I didn't say anything to them then, but as I contemplated the situation, I realized I was "passing," allowing them to assume I was a Christian because it was just easier.
Today I'm not so close-mouthed with my colleagues. I fear that passing as a Christian may actually be a disservice to all non-Christians. Why should we act as though we have something to hide? There's nothing wrong with choosing to practice a religion other than Christianity, or choosing not to practice any religion at all. In fact, one of the foundations of this country is religious freedom.
One thing that still sometimes keeps me from openly expressing myself with my colleagues is the fact that my spiritual views are complicated. I don't have an easy label, like Christianity, that I can just whoop onto my spirituality so everyone will know what I'm talking about. My spirituality is the result of a lifetime of thinking about stuff; it still changes practically every day; and it just isn't easy to compress into a 30-second spiel.
But the main thing is that there's no need for me to compress my spiritual beliefs into a jingle intended for public consumption. I don't feel compelled to try to convert anyone to my way of thinking about God. I enjoy discussing theology with other open-minded people, although never in an evangelical sort of way.
To me, these sorts of spiritual and philosophical discussions are best left for after work hours. This, of course, leads me back to the original problem. Many of us can't leave theology until after work because it is foisted upon us constantly at work.
I've tried responding politely but firmly to my evangelical colleagues: "I'm really not interested in coming to your church or learning more about Jesus Christ." This answer simply makes one into a theological challenge, I think. You'll never be left alone. You'll be invited to everything from church sing-alongs to vacation Bible school.
I've also tried sarcasm: "No thank you. We just bought a whole bunch of religion from a guy over the phone, and we're stocked up for the rest of the year at least." This will generally hold them off for a couple of days to several weeks, while they try and figure out whether you're making fun of them. But eventually they invite you to church again.
If you just want to be left alone, the only thing that will really work is an out-and-out lie: "Yes, I am a born-again Christian. I have accepted Jesus Christ into my heart." Be careful, though, because you may need to make up a church to attend in order to answer all of the (Big) brotherly questions that will ensue.
Though it may sound strange to the Christians who tend to believe the worst of heathens, I have a problem with the lying. I'd rather tell the truth and take the crap, and, like other minority groups before me, hope that my perseverance will make things easier for future generations. Ah, that's cheesy. But I'm still at least somewhat hopeful that my honesty will break down the preconceptions of people around me. If I can't have that, I'll just be happy if nobody else tells me that they're praying for my soul. *