Let me just get myself into a little more hot water here about politics and religion. I've already annoyed at least one reader, who objected to my assertion that the United States is not a theocracy, regardless of the professed religious beliefs of its founders, and found that my arguing for my point of view was an attempt to foist my beliefs on her.

I cannot speak for anyone but myself. I do not wish to remove God from anywhere — nor do I think I'm able to do such a thing. Wherever God is, God will always remain, immutable, beyond influence or alteration by human beings. And, by the way, I believe there is nowhere God is not. But I do not therefore propose that everyone at a municipal meeting should be required to pray, or to sit through a prayer of my devising, before the meeting begins. I may pray before, during and after the meeting, but I have no right to require others to do so. That, to me, is the free exercise of religion.

It is true that the former Christian majority in this country finds itself challenged in some ways as never before. And this is true in Maine in particular, as it is one of the least religious states, if not the least religious, in the Union. Many people are wholly outside religious institutions now; those who profess other faiths are, if not much more numerous, at least more vocal, more willing to identify themselves and the traditions they hold dear. I think this makes us stronger as a society, not weaker.

The world's religions have more in common, when you get down to their essence, than not. All religions regard themselves as a way of life, not just a set of rules. Many of the same stories and archetypes appear in more than one tradition. They all seek to guide followers in how to live in the world: how to come to grips with the fact that other creatures are autonomous beings and how to find joy in the face of death.

I am convinced that more than anything, it is fear that keeps us apart — fear of the unknown, fear of being rejected or shamed, fear of losing control. Only by allowing our differences to exist can we finally get beyond that fear — by getting to know one another without judgment. Simple, but not easy.

When I say the United States is not, and should not be, a Christian nation, I mean not exclusively Christian. There must be room here for people of all faiths, and, yes, for people of no faith at all. My understanding is that the Constitution explicitly forbids the establishment of a state religion, that is, turning the government into a theocracy. That does not mean that the people who serve in our government may not be guided by such Christian principles as turning the other cheek, treating others as one wishes to be treated, taking care of the poor, the sick and the homeless, welcoming the outcast and the stranger, and so on.

My living according to my beliefs is about my behavior, not anyone else's. If I think adultery is wrong, I shouldn't engage in it; if I believe it's my duty to donate a tenth of my income to the church, I should do that, without expecting that anyone else will do it. My faith doesn't give me the right to dictate, in a pluralistic society such as the United States, how others think and act.

This also is not easy: as the old Tears for Fears song said, "Everybody wants to rule the world." We all think everyone else should live and believe as we do. But part of what religion is for is to remind us that others are separate, autonomous beings with the right to self-determination, that is, creatures of God. And to teach us that it is only when we honor their autonomy that we truly love them.