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God in the Public Square:
The Hallelujah Choir

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 2.


Ultimately, the 2000 presidential contest ended not in an election but a coronation. Al Gore carried the national popular vote by over half a million and Washington, D.C.-except for the Supreme Court, which he lost by one vote! Naderites claim that the nation is ruled by a Republicrat Party, and that there are no meaningful differences between the two major parties. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans dispute that, maintaining that there are sharp ideological differences; in turn, many liberals blame Ralph Nader for spoiling Gore's chances for victory. George W. Bush has said that he wishes to work with all factions of the country and that continued healing efforts will need to be exerted if we are to bring this nation together. Bipartisanship in the Congress is being hailed as a worthy step beyond "partisan politics." We hope that this does not transform America into a one-party state-for dissent is the life-blood of a viable democracy.

The culture wars are likely to continue. There are real differences in views in America about the relationship between church and state that need to be debated. For secular humanists the most contentious issue concerns the role of religion in the public square. There has been too little dissent about this. Bush has said that, for him, Jesus is the most influential philosopher(!) Bush's first public act after the announcement of his victory was a prayer. He and Vice President-elect Richard Cheney wish to use public funds to support "faith-based charities." Bush believes that the Ten Commandments should be posted in public buildings and that both creation and evolution should be taught in the schools-though he would leave that up to the local school boards to decide.

Unfortunately, during the campaign the Democratic Party moved to the right on the God question-in order, it is said, to pre-empt Bush's conservative base. If so, the strategy didn't work, but the damage done to the wall of separation may endure long after Campaign 2000. In any case, the basic principle of separation of church and state was seriously compromised-at least if we take the major candidates at their word.

Appended to this editorial are some selected quotations of George W. Bush/Dick Cheney and Al Gore/Joe Lieberman, which they uttered during the heat of the election battle. As one can see, both the Republicans and the Democrats espoused the ideology of the Religious Right. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal observed wryly that, if a Republican candidate professed Lieberman's views, then liberals would have been up in arms. Candidates Bill Bradley and Ralph Nader declined to interpose their private religious beliefs into the political campaign-but both were soundly defeated. The future of the Democratic Party is up for grabs. Will it opt to weaken secularism, as the Republican Party has long advocated?

I submit that the United States is a secular democracy (the best single piece of evidence for this being our godless Constitution), and that the private religious beliefs of the president are not relevant to his or her performance. The Constitution clearly states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office or public trust." Although this is legally the case (de jure), in practice (de facto) few if any candidates have dared express dissenting views about religion and God in the public square.

Although the Democratic Party has been a strong advocate of the First Amendment religion clause, regrettably, both Gore and Lieberman supported faith-based charities, a clear violation of the separation principle. Senator Lieberman said that God needed to be restored to the "naked public square"-a phrase first popularized by the neoconservative Richard John Neuhaus, and Vice President Gore apparently agreed with these sentiments. Lieberman asserted that the First Amendment religion clause applied to freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. The candidates tried to outdo each other in God-blessing everyone.

John F. Kennedy, on deciding to run for the presidency, demonstrated the proper posture: he was a candidate who happened to be a Roman Catholic, but this was irrelevant to his role as president. In our view, the president and his or her administration should remain neutral about religious questions and not seek to impose anyone's religious faith or lack of faith on the country. It also means that neither the president nor the Congress will make any law respecting the establishment of religion or denying the free exercise thereof. This entails the right to believe and the right not to believe, a core contention of church-state jurisprudence for more than five decades. The rights of unbelievers should be protected as well as those of believers.

Secular humanists need to make two points loud and clear in the continuing public debate about the role of religion in public affairs. First, one can be moral and need not accept the Judeo-Christian religion, and conversely be devout and immoral; and second, one can be a responsible citizen and not believe in God. Jefferson, Madison, and many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, not Christians; but they respected freedom of conscience. Jefferson specifically defended the morality of atheists (in a letter to Thomas Law in 1814). This principle applies all the more to citizenship, where a person's private religious beliefs should be irrelevant. The United States is perhaps the most pluralistic society on the planet-virtually every ethnic, national, racial, and religious group is represented here; and this includes not only Christians, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists, but also atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. We need to demonstrate by deed as well as word that belief in God is no guarantee of morality and should not be used as a test of political reliability.

When Bush's Supreme Court appointees come up for confirmation, these same questions will spark fresh contention. We think that the views of likely nominees on this issue are of central importance for secular humanists. One does not have to be a theist in order to demand equal protection of the laws. They apply equally to unbelievers. Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas have opined that the Establishment Clause means that the government should not favor one sect of religion over another; it does not mean that irreligion deserves equal protection with religion-contrary to the Supreme Court's rulings in the famous McCollum (1948) and Zorach (1952) decisions. Should future Supreme Court appointees agree with them, the viability of our secular republic will be seriously threatened; and unbelievers may very well be reduced to the status of second-class citizens, de jure as well as de facto. All those who cherish freedom of conscience will need to be vigilant and ready to join in battle to prevent this dangerous reinterpretation of the First Amendment.


The Campaign 2000 Candidates on Religion

George W. Bush

"When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart."

From President Bush's inaugural address: "We are guided by a power larger than ourselves, who created us equal in his image; . . . Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and laws."

"It seems to me 'Thou shalt not kill' is pretty universal. I think districts ought to be allowed to post the Ten Commandments. No matter what a person's religion is there's some inherent values in those great commandments."

"[Schools should teach] different forms of how the world was formed, [with evolution taught alongside creation]. I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started."

 

Dick Cheney

"Governor Bush and I believe faith-based groups, whether Mormon or Methodist or Muslim, ought to be eligible for public money to advance their good work."

 

Al Gore

"The men and women who work in faith- and values-based organizations are driven by their spiritual commitment; to serve their God, they have sustained the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless; they have trained them, educated them, cared for them, healed them. Most of all, they have done what government can never do; what it takes is God's help, sometimes, for all of us to manage; they have loved them."

The idea of social justice is inextricably linked in the Scriptures with ecology. In passage after passage, environmental degradation and social injustice go hand in hand. Indeed, the first instance of 'pollution' in the Bible occurs when Cain slays Abel and his blood falls on the ground, rendering it fallow."

"The center of my life is faith and family and I have a passion in my heart to fight for the families who most need a champion, those who wake up each day dedicated to their children, their churches and their communities.". . .

 

Joseph Lieberman

"We are still arguably the most religiously observant people on earth, and share a near universal belief in God. But you wouldn't know it from national public life today. The line between church and state is an important one and has always been hard for us to draw, but in recent years we have gone far beyond what the Framers ever imagined in separating the two. So much so that we have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square and constructed a 'discomfort zone' for even discussing our faith in public settings-ironically making religion one of the few remaining socially acceptable targets of intolerance."

"As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."

"We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state, but remember: the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."


Paul Kurtz is the editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


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