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Should Atheists Fight for Religion in Government?

Nonbelievers take note: Religious life tends to decline following breakdowns in the separation of church and state.

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According to history, the side that heeds this advice first will win.

My unorthodox advice arises from a simple fact.  Compared to Europeans, three times more Americans report that religion is “very important” to them, and three times more Americans attend church regularly. What does this have to do with the culture war? I’ll get to that. But first, consider this question: why do Americans go to church (or other houses of worship) while Europeans stay home?

The answer can be found in America’s founding. After the revolutionary war, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others, argued that government should offer no encouragement or economic support for religion, and moreover, as Jefferson wrote, “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” In other words, the public should be left to decide for themselves how they want to practice and support religion without any interference or coercion from the government. The opposing side, maintained by statesmen like George Washington and Patrick Henry, considered religion essential to social order and argued that government ought to promote and provide economic support for select religions. Without direct support by the government, they worried, religion would cease to remain an important feature of American life.

Jefferson and Madison won the debate, in part because of strong backing from Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and some Presbyterians who considered any support from government an intrusion on their religious ambitions. Those Christians confidently argued at the time that “religious establishment has never been a means of prospering the Gospel.”

Separation of church and state did not result in religious dissolution and moral chaos, as some feared. Instead, the first amendment to the Constitution created a bull market for religion. Nineteenth century Europeans were gobsmacked that religious disestablishment in America fortified religious growth. The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in 1835 that “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”

Two years later, the German-born journalist Francis J. Grund identified the essential differences between American and European Christianity. “The Americans,” he wrote, “enjoy a threefold advantage: they have more preachers; they have more active preachers, and they have cheaper preachers than can be found in any part of Europe.”

What explained European Christianity’s weakness to compete? The answer, de Tocqueville reasoned, was that “the church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites.” In other words, when religion and government become entangled, the public’s natural hostility toward government transfers to religion and poisons both.

And therein lies the lesson that the two sides of this culture war should heed. The history of American religion suggests that when government involves itself in religion, religion withers on the vine; whereas when governments neither helps nor hinders, religious life flourishes. Therefore: atheists who would like to see a decline in religious influence over government should fight to establish state religions across the nation. If they succeeded, they would make religion anathema. Americans detest few things more than government, and the closer the affiliation between religion and government, the worse the outcome for religion.

On the other hand, the Christian Right should immediately join forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and dedicate themselves to ripping religious symbols out of  public schoolscourthouses, and  government buildings. The further away from government they keep religion, the better for America’s religious stock. Conservatives may recoil at this advice in practice, but they already agree in principle. Religion in Europe waned because Christianity maintained a religious monopoly. America, on the other hand, saw religion thrive because the First Amendment to the Constitution created a religious free market. What could be more palatable to conservatives than the fact that American religion is yet another success story for the free market?

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