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in freedom we trust
an atheist guide to religious liberty
By Edward M. Buckner Michael E. Buckner
Copyright © 2012 Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why Secularism? The Basic Logical and Philosophical Argument
The United States is and ought to be a free country, not a Christian nation. Whatever anyone says or thinks, it cannot be both. Nations, including the United States, have to choose either to endorse and support a religion or to be free. We are going to explain here exactly why the choice is necessary and why the only defensible choice is to be free. Everyone, including deeply religious Christians, should agree with us. And that is not arrogance on our part, nor is it foolish onesidedness—so let us first explain our optimism: Why should readers— some of you are probably Christians, maybe even fundamentalists—why should you listen to a pair of atheists, much less decide that we are right? (After all, there are far more Christians in the United States than there are atheists.) You should agree with us on this for two reasons: first, you rightly pride yourselves, we are sure, on being bright and open-minded, sincere searchers for the truth, as well as strong, freedom-loving, patriotic Americans (readers from Canada and elsewhere are hereby invited to be patriotic to their own "exceptional" nation); and second, we really are right about this.
American history supports this view (see next chapters) and shows conclusively that we are not a Christian nation. And, as many well-documented quotations demonstrate, America's founders supported religious liberty and understood that government support of any religion undermines religious freedom.
There are many "myths"—false things many people think they know about separation of religion and government—that need to be countered. (See chapter 19, "Questions," for specific replies to most of these.) But anyone who wants to claim that our government should support Christianity (or any other religion) must explain away American history, contradict our decidedly unchristian form of government, and, finally and most crucially, demonstrate that separation of church and state is not in everyone's best interest.
This point about everyone's self-interest is the "... and ought to be" part of our argument. Anyone who disagrees would have to show why any of four very basic points don't hold up:
1. Americans do not all agree on religion.
2. Human judgement is imperfect.
3. Religious truth cannot be determined by force or by majority vote.
4. Religious liberty is worth defending.
These four statements, all true, are the bedrock reasons that separation of religion and government is necessary and desirable for all. We will return to an analysis and defense of these four later in this chapter.
Our history and the documented words of the founders and of our governing documents clearly show that American government was not designed to be Christian. But perhaps even more difficult for those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation is the severe conflict between biblical Christianity and our government and society as it is now organized.
Not only was the Declaration of Independence politically radical, it was radical in religious terms as well. (See chapter 6, "The Unchristian Roots of the Fourth of July," for more detail.) The Declaration explicitly denied the old doctrines of "Divine Right of Kings" and aristocracy:
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
These words weren't just a challenge to the power of kings; they also went against the plain text of the Bible:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1–7)
And the First Amendment's proclamation that there be no law abridging the free exercise of religion is a far cry from the demands of biblical law:
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, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 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. 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. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deuteronomy 13:6–11)
The First Amendment—which says you may worship whatever god or gods you believe in, in whatever manner your conscience demands, or believe in and worship no gods of any sort, if that's where your reason guides you—stands in stark contrast to the First Commandment's dictate of "No other gods before me." Of course Christians (and Jews) are still free to follow the First Commandment as a matter of individual conscience; but biblical laws (or qur'anic ones) that would enforce one view of God over all others on pain of death can never be implemented in the United States—as long as we safeguard the unbiblical heritage of liberty bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers.
Theists in America frequently assert that our rights come from the Judeo-Christian God, that the founders knew this and built that knowledge into our governing documents, and that we must all agree that our rights are God-given or must instead conclude that they come from government officials. The false choice that is thus set up is then used in debates to attack the logic of secularism and American history that supports it. The governing documents the founders created demonstrate that they did not see government and God as the only possible sources of our rights and that they plainly did not rely on either source.
Not only does our Constitution assert in its preamble that the source of authority is "We the People," and not any god or allegedly sacred text, but also the document includes explicit procedures for changing anything in that charter. If the framers had wanted to tie rights set forth in the document to God as expressed in the Bible or in any other sacred text, they certainly had many precedents for doing that. But the procedures set forth for changing what counts as a right makes no reference to any religious source. And it is worth noting that theists generally insist that "sacred" or "God-given" rights cannot ever be changed. There is, after all, no procedure for amending the Qur'an or the Book of Deuteronomy.
That our rights can actually be changed is not mere abstract and technical fact. We know they can be changed because they have been. Women, eighteen-year-old citizens, members of racial minorities, all "natural-born" citizens, and others have gained rights as a result of amendments to the Constitution. Slavery has been abolished in this way; rights related to drinking or selling alcoholic beverages have been changed and then changed back by constitutional amendment.
Imagine (we trust that this can happen only in imagination) that someone in the United States decided that men in the United States do not deserve to be able to vote or hold public office, that only women should be so empowered. Could that happen? What would it take to make it happen? If a preacher found a biblical passage (s)he interpreted as requiring that, could the president or the US Supreme Court make the necessary changes to our laws? Consider this argument:
Why We Don't Want Men to Vote
Because man's place is in the army.
Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.
Because if men should adopt peaceable methods, women will no longer look up to them.
Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms, and drums.
Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them unfit for government.
What would it take to implement the changes preferred by this feminist writer? There are two explicit limits agreed to in the original 1787 document as to what can be amended in the Constitution, regarding abolishing the slave trade and the votes each state is entitled to in the US Senate, so the founders clearly did consider how much amendment freedom they were willing to grant to future citizens. But no protection for the rights of male citizens was incorporated.
The answers to this thought experiment are revealing. Men could lose their citizenship rights, but not by decree of any religious or political authority. And it could happen even if all the citizens most directly affected by it—men—were opposed to it. If a minority of US citizens—every woman in three-fourths of the states—thirty-eight states—was fully committed to the project, the US Constitution could, in time, be amended to take away citizenship from all men in all fifty states. And women are in the majority right now in forty-three of the fifty states. These determined women would have to elect state legislators and US congressional representatives and senators who would do their bidding, but then it could happen. The fact that every citizen reading this, man or woman, no doubt finds the idea virtually unthinkable and would not even briefly entertain it is what will keep it from happening. And the "argument" quoted above—written by Alice Duer Miller in 1915—was almost certainly presented only as satire, as a parody of the case then being put forth against giving women the vote. All this demonstrates conclusively that the rights protected in the US Constitution are protected not by God or government administrators or judges but only by "We the People." Our strong consensus, often developed at great cost and over many years, has changed rights with previous amendments. Our nearly universal consensus against seriously eroding or eliminating citizens' rights is what protects those rights.
The United States, with its refusal to have an official religion or accept any national definition of or belief in any god, didn't start out very biblical, and it has gotten less biblical as time has gone on—which is a good thing in the view of nearly all Americans. One of the greatest blots on our history was the shameful legacy of some 250 years of treating other human beings as property, from colonial Jamestown right up until our bloodiest war, the Civil War. But after four years of bloodshed, we finally proclaimed as a nation in the Thirteenth Amendment that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." More generations of struggles allowed us to finally make good on the promises of equal rights for all Americans that were made after the Civil War. But ending slavery certainly wasn't the biblical thing to do. The Bible never condemns slavery itself, in either the Old Testament or the New; at most, the Bible calls for masters to treat their slaves kindly (Ephesians 6:9)—while calling for slaves to humbly obey their masters, as they would God himself (Ephesians 6:5–8). As for actually freeing all the slaves:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Leviticus 25:44–46)
By the twentieth century we had also finally become a nation that acknowledged, in the Nineteenth Amendment, that men and women should be equal citizens; "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." We have women as governors, as senators and representatives, as secretaries of state and ambassadors, and as CEOs and corporate executives. Most Americans probably accept as a matter of course that someday our president will be a woman. But the Bible says that "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet" (1 Timothy 2:11–12). So much for Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice—and Ann Coulter!
History makes clear that many of the claims made by theists related to separation of government and religion are false, as addressed throughout this book. Hundreds of documents and quotations from the founders of American government that will be cited throughout this work support the idea that the framers quite deliberately established a secular government. But whatever the history or the opinions of the framers, why should anyone support freedom instead of one's own religious beliefs? Were the founders right to create a free country instead of a Christian nation?
More needs to be said about the four basic principles mentioned above and the crucial importance of them:
First: Not all American citizens hold the same opinions on religion.
Second: Human judgement is imperfect.
Third: Religious truth cannot be determined by votes or by force.
And fourth and finally: Freedom, especially religious liberty, is worth having and protecting.
Anyone who wants to claim that the United States is a Christian nation, that the American government should support any religion, must show you why any of these four very basic points do not stand. If he defeats any of these four closely related claims, convinces you that any of the four does not hold up, then and only then can he begin to build a case that this ought to be a Christian nation.
If we all agreed on religion—a state that has probably never existed even in the most closed society and certainly not in the United States—there would be no need to resolve religious conflicts. If human decision making could be considered consistent or reliable, even close to perfect, then legislators and majorities could be trusted to promote the "right" religious ideas. If it is possible to arrive at religious truth via an election or through force, then electoral or even military means might reasonably be employed to reach that truth. If liberty can be seen as inherently worth protecting, as nearly all Americans accept, and if religious liberty is correctly seen as primary to liberty more generally, then threats to religious liberty must be thwarted. Secularism—separation of religion and government, of church/mosque/temple and nation/state/city/county—needs to be understood and defended by all.
Not all American citizens hold the same opinions on religion and on important matters related to religion (like whether or not there is a god and, if so, what its nature is; or how or when or whether to worship God; or what God says to us about how to live). This is not related to the question of whether you think your own religious ideas are the right ones—presumably everyone thinks he or she is right when it comes to religion. But clearly not all citizens have the same beliefs on important religious matters.
Excerpted from in freedom we trust by Edward M. Buckner Michael E. Buckner Copyright © 2012 by Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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