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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.

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.

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