"This country was founded on the principle of Christianity. The moral fiber of this country is in trouble, and I will stand and honor the Ten Commandments, I always will and I will never be apologetic for it" (Craig James, candidate for U.S. Senator from Texas in a televised debate on April 13, 2012). As a Texas resident (I can't say I'm a true Texan because I wasn't born here, even though I've lived here longer than in any other state), I wasn't surprised to hear these words while watching part of this recent senatorial debate, in which four candidates sought to outdo each other in wooing conservative religious voters. James' sentiments certainly would have resonated with me prior to my deconversion; after all, the U.S. was founded on Christian principles, including the Ten Commandments, was it not?
In a country where over 80 percent of the people claim to be Christians, and in a state that's more Christian than most, James' statements are not politically risky. Nor was Governer Perry's call to prayer for rain last April at the beginning of what turned out to be the most severe season of drought in Texas' history.

Now, it doesn't matter to me what religious perspective a politician embraces, as long as she's an effective, honest, and wise public servant who submits to facts rather than bending them to her political advantage. As I read Article 6, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution, it appears to me that the intent of the Founding Fathers was that the religion (or lack thereof) of a public officeholder should be a moot question:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. 

Incidentally, Texas is one of eight states that does require religious belief on the part of its elected officials, arguing  that the "no religious test" clause above applies only at the federal level. Does anyone truly believe that it was the intent of the framers of the Constitution to forbid such a test at the federal level but not at the state level? I suppose I would be ineligible to hold office in Texas.

Apparently pastor Dennis Terry, who introduced Rick Santorum to a rally of 1,400 people on March 18, didn't get the "no religious test" memo, nor the First Amendment memo barring the establishment of religion by the government:

I don't care what the liberals say, I don't care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I'm tired of people telling me that I can't say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or that we can no longer pray in public. Listen to me: if you don't love America, if you don't like the way we do things I got one thing to say -- GET OUT. We don't worship Buddha. We don't worship Mohammad. We don't worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God's son Jesus Christ.

I have been the recipient of a number of chain e-mails that express similar sentiments. How is it, they complain, that the minority of non-Christians in our country can tell the majority of Christians what they can or cannot do or say? After all, WE (Christians) are the MAJORITY! I'll include below a sample e-mail that expresses this sentiment:

NBC this morning had a poll on this question. They had the highest Number of responses that they have ever had for one of their polls, and the Percentage was the same as this: 
86% to keep the words, IN God We Trust and God in the Pledge of Allegiance, 14% against 
That is a pretty 'commanding' public response. It is said that 86% of Americans believe the word God should stay. Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having 'In God We Trust' on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why is the world catering to this 14%?  


However, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written expressly to protect minorities from the tyranny (or bullying) of the majority. The framers knew that if the rights of minorities were left to majority vote, the majority would run roughshod over the minority. Beyond the Constitution, it's a matter of following the Golden Rule, of asking yourself how you would like to be treated if you were in the minority. What if, for example, centuries (or even decades) in the future, the Muslim population reached majority status in the United States and began requiring your children to recite in unison passages from the Koran (similarly to how I recall being asked in 1976 to recite the Lord's Prayer in public school in Arkansas); posting portions of the Koran in public courts; introducing Sharia law; and encouraging politicians to invoke the name of Allah in political speeches, on our currency, and on the floor of Congress?  And what if they began shouting, "If you don't like the way we do things in this country, then GET OUT!" At that point, when a presidential candidate joins the crowd in a standing ovation (as Rick Santorum did after pastor Terry's introduction), would you not then begin to gain a greater appreciation of the principle of separation of church and state, understanding it was meant to protect you from persecution and marginalization on the basis of your beliefs?

I will grant that some of the Founding Fathers personally revered the Ten Commandments and relied on them as a moral compass, and probably all the Founders believed in at least a distant, deistic god. Yet the authors studiously avoided any discussion of religion in the Constitution, let alone any exclusivist scriptures from one particular religious tradition. If, as U.S. Senate candidate from Texas Craig James and others (notably David Barton) believe that our country was founded on Christian principles, and if the majority of our founders were orthodox Christians, then was it simply an accident that they left out all mention of religion from our most important founding document? I submit it could not have been an accident; there were considerable pressures on Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe to make the new country into an explicitly Christian nation (as no doubt there would be today on the part of conservative Christians if for some reason we were to rewrite the Constitution from scratch). Notwithstanding the attempts of revisionists to make us believe ours was intended to be a Christian nation, consider the following excerpt from the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President John Adams in 1797, a mere ten years after the Constitution was adopted:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

There are certainly thin-skinned, angry atheists out there, taking umbrage at any and all public expressions of religious faith, including the planting of crosses on the roadside where a loved one perished in a traffic accident, for example. Do we really think that barring such expressions of personal homage to lost loved ones in public places will undermine the cause of liberty and justice for all, or even the cause of freethought in its crusade against religious superstition? Personally I think not. There are other religious expressions that are potentially a little more concerning, like the motto, "In God We Trust" imprinted on all our currency. The problem is not that hordes of atheists will begin believing in God as a result of this motto; the concern is that it implies that "we" (i.e., those of use who are true U.S. citizens) trust in God, and that those who don't believe in God, or those like the Hindus that believe in many gods, are just left-over chopped liver. Maybe they should just "GET OUT!", to use Pastor Terry's words.

What should be our position on the pending Tennessee legislation to authorize the placement of the Ten Commandments, along with other historical documents, in state courthouses and in other government institutions? State representative Matthew Hill, who sponsored the legislation, insists it's not about promoting religion:

Just look around his office, he said. There's an original Tennessee state flag. A framed copy of a David Crockett letter. A painting of historic Jonesborough, his hometown."We're not talking about holding a church service. We're not talking about having a Bible study at the courthouse," said Hill, a Republican. "What we're talking about is remembering who we are, where we came from and not being ashamed of that."

It's not a stretch to think that Hill's ultimate aims might be a little more ambitious than he lets on. I could be wrong, but it sounds to me as though he's using his other historical documents as mere props to get the foot of religion (and not just any religion, but his religion) in the door of government. If someone were to suggest that he swap out his David Crockett letter for an alternate artifact from the Alamo, I doubt he would mind in the least, but if I proposed to him that the Ten Commandments (which had no official part in our nation's early history) should be swapped out in favor of the Treaty of Tripoli, for example, he would not be pleased in the least. (To be fair, liberals are prone to similar foot-in-the-door strategies; I don't doubt, for example, that most who support Obamacare would like to see it eventually transformed into a single-payer system.) In any case, my primary concern with the public display of the Ten Commandments is that it amounts to the government endorsement of a document that stands in direct opposition to our founding documents (because, after all, Hill's real aim is not just to display a random historical document but to confer the imprimatur of government on the Decalogue) .

Consider the first of the Commandments: "I am the LORD [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3). Compare this with the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In other words, according to the First Amendment, we are officially free to worship any god or gods we wish, or no god at all. But according the the First Commandment, we are obligated to worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone, on pain of death, as we learn later in Deuteronomy 13:

6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Why should I be worried about the occasional display of the Ten Commandments in government offices? Do I really think that most Christians intend to require the worship of Yahweh alone on pain of death?  No, I don't think most believers are interested in going that far. My fear is that, once Jefferson's Wall of Separation is breached, it will be tempting to continue chipping away until it all comes tumbling down. Will it stop with the Ten Commandments? Will not victory give way to victory, bringing back to our schools a "moment of silence," followed by the Lord's Prayer, and the study of a literal view of the Bible? Never mind the resulting social ostracism of those who for reasons of conscience cannot join in the public declarations of a sectarian piety. And if we were to turn back the clock in this way, can we not anticipate the repeal of many other hard-earned liberties that the religious right has stood in the way of at every turn? Will gays be prosecuted and barred from the military again? Will the women's rights gained in the past century be lost; will they be pulled from the military or denied the right to vote? Will civil rights for minorities be threatened? Nonsense, I can hear some saying! But if the same religiously driven sentiments that opposed these advances (and it is beyond dispute that religious conservatives--for stated religious reasons--were historically the loudest voices opposing them), then what is to prevent the same process from happening in reverse, once the ball starts rolling back? I fear a religious impulse that, when given free reign, seeks ever more influence, ever more power, until it reigns supreme, as it did in the time of the Deuteronomy passage above. It's not that far fetched, when you consider what certain religious leaders like Pastor Terry are already saying. There's a pent-up desire for religious domination that the courts have long put the brakes on, but once the brakes are removed, once enough people can be convinced that our country was intended to be a Christian nation, then a Christian theocratic nation it will become, the Constitution and all non-Christians be damned. In a time of widespread fear or crisis, this snowball effect can readily happen as a result of one-upmanship: as leaders outdo each other in expressions of piety and in publicly promoting the will of God, it isn't long before there's little more room to push the envelope and we find ourselves in an Old Testament dominionist theocracy.

I recognize that believers fear their own marginalization and persecution by secular, anti-Christian authorities, but it would seem to me those fears are overblown. If a teacher in a public school were to actively promote atheism or belittle religion, or if he were were to post a framed copy of some choice anti-religious quotes by Dawkins, or if an atheist presidential candidate joined a standing ovation in response to an introduction by a prominent atheist calling for all believers to "GET OUT!", then there would be reason for concern. But Christians, by and large, are not being persecuted in this country (and the same is no doubt true for most atheists). Restrictions against using government property and offices to promote one's sectarian views are not persecution; they are constitutional protections for those who don't happen to share the same views. To be sure, there are some contexts where it's socially frowned upon to be a believer, such as in certain elite universities, and in some cases actual discrimination exists. For the record, I deplore discrimination and ostracism of either kind, whether proreligious or antireligious, especially (but not only) when taxpayer funds are involved. Much more could be said on this topic (forcing Jehovah's witnesses to allow their children to receive life-saving blood transfusions, or forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraception to their employees, or forcing creationist taxpayers to pay for public schools to teach evolution to their children; each of these could occupy another whole blog post and more, but I need to finish this post first!).

So there you have it. It all boils down to this: let's all agree to respect each other's religious views or lack thereof when taxpayer funds or official representatives of government are serving our country. Let's not polarize public office on the basis of religion. We already have too many other sources of polarization. If atheists and Christians want to promote their views on private billboards, in churches, in the home, in meetup groups at pubs, or whatever, let them have at it; but once you've been elected by the people to represent the people, do not take their taxes and use your public office to promote your atheism (there's little danger of that, since the only open atheist who has managed to be elected to a national government position is U.S. Representative Peter Start of California), your theism, your Mormonism, your Catholicism, or any other religious or anti-religious ism.

On a personal note, my wife and I will be celebrating our 20th anniversary next week, so I'll probably be skipping at least one weekly blog post...


04/17/2012 15:38

Extremely well written; superb logic.

04/17/2012 19:00

Thanks, well done. There is not that big a step between sanctimonious bombast and the moral superiority that has done so much true evil in the world. Best.

James Hutton
04/24/2012 20:51

Nice post. I've been away on holiday so I missed it.

It's interesting reading posts about the reality of life in America for atheists. I live in New Zealand, and its astonishing how different things are here. When I first heard about the atheist 'out' campaign I thought it was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard of, but the more I read, the more I can see how neccessary it is in the states.

In New Zealand, the last census in 2006 had about 40% of us not having any religion. If the rate of increase has been steady, (we'll find out next year) it'll be just short of 50% now. The result of this is that religion no longer plays a significant role in society. I was flabbergasted to read of people in some areas of America being afraid of losing their jobs if people find out they're an atheist, in New Zealand that is simply unconscionable. Sure, within families it can be difficult, but within society your religious preferences simply don't matter anymore.

Last year, it wasn't until a week before our general election that I read any story in the news of the religious views of the heads of the two largest parties here. It was a tiny footnote on the page, and simply said that both candidates "respected the rights of people to believe whatever they wanted, but they both didn't have any personal faith themselves". And you know what? No one cared. It simply wasn't an issue.

When I lost my faith, talking to Christians in NZ, of they were disappointed, but no one tried to exclude me from anything, or discriminate against me, or even say nasty things. It was really nice.

So it can happen. NZ isn't a perfect place to live, but it does have its positives and this is one of them. In fact, I think we're facing a new issue now. As agnostics/atheists become the majority in NZ society we actually have a responsibility to make that we don't become the ones doing the discrimination. That the Christian can continue being a Christian without fear of ridicule, losing their job etc. It would be the first time that a religious minority wouldn't be discriminated against.

I'm lucky that I got a free pass from my society for losing my faith. I admire those of standing up for freethought in an environment that's not so sympathetic.


04/27/2012 07:09

just found your book and blog. Both very nice and you do an excellent job of tearing apart theist claims. If you'd like to hang out with some atheists, come on over to the forum at Why Won't God Heal Amputees? http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/forums/index.php

Ken Daniels
05/13/2012 14:19

Velkin, thanks for the kudos and for the tip on "Why Won't God Heal Amputees." I had heard of the site but hadn't visited it earlier; it's impressive! I miss lurking at the old iidb forum; maybe this will take its place for me. I've never been much of a contributer, but I do look forward to gleaning what I can from some of the conversations.

05/13/2012 17:50

Sorry that this comment is late, I've only recently discovered your site! This is a very interesting post.

I wrote my senior thesis on religion in American state constitutions between 1776 and 1791. My final conclusion in regards to whether the US was a "Christian nation" was that the federal government was never intended to be Christian, but that the states had considerable leeway. Some states had religious tests for office. Virginia had what was basically religious freedom as we think of it today - though if I recall correctly, that actually became more restricted after 1791. At that time, the states and the federal government were more separated than they are today.

It really bothers me when people act like this country should be some sort of theocracy, no matter how mild.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

05/13/2012 19:07

That's a good 2 cents Hannah, and Velkyn, and James, and Don. And of course Ken. A valuable exchange. Quite the news lately on CNN and NPR re/ Teresa MacBain, a Methodist pastor in Florida "coming out" as an atheist. Google it if you are not aware. Glad to see this once taboo subject becoming more mainstream, less susceptible to immediate verbal stoning.

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