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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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This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Debates over separation of church and state are a staple of the culture wars, and skirmishes arise and vanish like radar blips. One recent squabble came and went with such haste, you might have missed it if you were offline for a few days.

The debate over the “Defense of Religion Act” in North Carolina played out with the predictability of a sitcom. I offer this modest proposal, then, to remind both sides that if this is a war, then they have fought to a stalemate, and it is time for some new tactics, by which I mean: the history of religion in America demonstrates that the winner of the culture war will be the side that does the opposite of everything they are doing now.

Consider the tussle in North Carolina. Last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners in Rowan County, North Carolina who have a habit of opening every session with a Christian prayer. An official meeting from December 2007, for example, began:

“As we get ready to celebrate the Christmas season, we’d like to thank you for the Virgin Birth, we’d like to thank you for the Cross at Calvary, and we’d like to thank you for the resurrection. Because we do believe that there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ. I ask all these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.”

In response to the ACLU lawsuit, a dozen North Carolina lawmakers co-sponsored a resolution that, they claimed, was intended to express support for the besieged county commissioners. Yet the resolution went much further than a statement of support, declaring that “The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states… from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.” In other words, the ACLU was arguing on first amendment grounds that Rowan County officials were favoring Christianity. In response, these North Carolina lawmakers proclaimed that the first amendment did not apply to North Carolina.

The wildly overshooting lawmakers garnered immediate media attention (“North Carolina May Declare Official State Religion Under New Bill,” reported The Huffington Post) and alarmed those who felt that Christian theocrats had gained a foothold in the Tarheel state. Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing for Salon, criticized the resolution as a “desperate power grab” by Christians panicking as the country becomes increasingly secular. Williams then launched into the Culture War Debate by claiming the founding fathers as modern secular progressives who “weren’t trying to impose religion on America. They were trying to liberate us from religion.”

Williams was hardly alone in arguing that “we didn’t sign up for a theocracy.” Hemant Mehta’s popular blog, Friendly Atheist, called on his readers to contact their representatives and demand that they “do everything in their power to make sure this bill never sees the light of day.” As it turned out, Mehta’s readers needn’t have bothered, since the national backlash against the North Carolina resolution led state legislators to permanently shelve it. The battle was over in days, and none of the soldiers in this war learned anything.

As both sides regroup for the next mêlée, they might consider a new strategy. Before one side tries to install Christianity in state constitutions, and before the other side denounces their opponents as the Christian Taliban, both sides might survey the lessons of American religious history and consider another tactic. By which I mean: the converse of their strategy thus far.

Those atheists and progressives hoping to end religious intrusion in government affairs should not have protested this legislation or claimed the founding fathers as secular liberals. Instead, they should have done everything in their power to promote North Carolina’s Freedom of Religion Act and, more, fought to establish the Christian state of North Carolina as quickly as possible. And conservative evangelical legislators need not waste their time writing toothless resolutions establishing state religions. Rather, if the Christian Right would like religion to prosper in America, they should erect a wall between Church and State so high it can be seen from orbit.

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?

Now, Culture Warriors, listen up: a legislator in Louisiana just submitted a bill calling for public school students to recite the Lord’s Prayer alongside the Pledge of Allegiance. You can take your typical, predictable approach. Or you could win this thing once and for all.

 

Shanny Luft teaches religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. His research interests include religion and popular culture, new religious movements, and American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. He is currently writing a book about evangelical attitudes toward the film industry in the early twentieth century.

 
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