In the “Articles of Religion” section of the The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (the curse of curiosity sends me ranging far and wide), I found the following statement: “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ: neither do they make men meet to receive grace . . . for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.”
I rather doubt that many modern-day Episcopalians believe that non-believers in Christ commit something “in the nature of sin” when they do good works. Good works are good works no matter who does them. Personally, I can’t fathom a God who counts good works by non-believers as sin.
I don’t know if other denominations have similar statements restricting good works to believers, but many religious people tend to restrict goodness to members of their own faith. This belief radically narrows the number of “good” people running around—and promotes the idea that those who are not with us must be against us. The fuss over allowing American Muslims to build a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center is an example.
On a personal level, I feel marginalized by neighbors who judge me not for what I am or what I do, but for not attending church. Church attendance is equated with goodness in Mormon minds. Friendliness, service to neighbors, community service—none of this counts unless a person also warms a bench on Sundays. But maybe they’re only trying to share. Maybe I should return the favor by asking why they don’t join me in community service and meditation classes.