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Can We Bridge the Great Divide?

Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 2.

Most secular humanists I know were dismayed by the election of George W. Bush to a second term, and doubly so because of the wide margin of his victory (if we assume the official figures are correct), and by the fact that conservative Republicans solidified their control of the Senate and House. Mr. Bush says he has a mandate to fulfill his agenda; we await the details of what he plans to accomplish in his second term. Perhaps it is too much to ask, but we would be heartened if the President adopted the role of statesman and moved his administration more toward the center of the political spectrum. The United States is beset by horrendous problems, not least including a growing deficit and the misbegotten, tragic war in Iraq. The President and Congress need all the help they can muster from all Americans. It would be a worthy goal to try and bridge the great divide that separates us.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, worried that factions might engender conflicts within the new American Republic. One reason why he introduced the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which forbade lawmaking respecting an establishment of religion, was to avoid religious factionalism. Surely, we are on the brink of religious factionalism today; yet there is still time to appeal to the good sense of the American people and to turn back the prospect of religious warfare in the public square.

This magazine has never endorsed political candidates nor supported political parties per se. We are deeply concerned, however, with defending the core moral principles of American democracy. We are especially apprehensive that the Bush Administration will continue to cater to its base, the evangelical Right. If it does so, then a radical transformation of democratic values and principles is likely to occur, and factional conflicts engendered by religious hostilities may engulf the public square.

The first reaction of many secular humanists to the Bush victory was to want to flee the country. That is surely not a realistic option; instead, we ought to stay and attempt to persuade our fellow citizens of the importance of defending traditional American ideals as we interpret them. We have hardly reached the eve of the last days, as had the Weimar Republic facing Nazism in pre-World War II Germany. Hopefully, there is still time to modify the agenda of the Bush Administration. In any case, we ought not to give up trying to do so.

Which issues divide Americans? There are many, but I will focus on five of the most urgent:

First is the failure of the evangelical Right to recognize that there exist alternative moral conceptions of virtue and value and differing principles of fairness. We deny that all morality must be faith-based; surely throughout history, men and women have sought to ground moral values on rational considerations. This has been recognized in both secular and religious traditions. An appeal to reason enables human beings to modify their value judgments in the light of their consequences and also to more peacefully negotiate differences with others. No one party has a monopoly on righteousness; those who insist that their principles are absolute are apt to feel entitled thereby to tyrannize others.

Second, in the present context of American society, we are concerned about continued assaults on the First Amendment and especially its principle of the separation of church and state. The fact that America has until now withstood efforts to establish a specific religion, whether Christianity or Judeo-Christianity in general, is a credit to the American experiment in democracy. We are also disturbed about the dangers to our civil liberties implicit in the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. In our view, the “War on Terrorism” has been used to frighten the public. We do not deny that there are terrorists, but we question excessive paranoia about them. The departure of John Ashcroft is welcome news. Whether his replacement, Judge Alberto Gonzales, will be an improvement remains to be seen.

Third, we are disturbed that the Bush Administration will most likely insist on appointing reactionary, strict-constructionist judges to the federal courts. Such judges may drastically re-interpret the Constitution and trample on the rights of dissenting and nonreligious Americans. Need I reiterate that Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs, Muslims and secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are still citizens? Similarly, we fear that the expansion of federal funding for so-called “faith-based charities” will only exacerbate the trend toward establishing monotheism as the generic religion of the country.

Fourth, we deplore the demeaning of the scientific, naturalistic, and secular contributions to American culture with which our nation’s history is so rich. These developments are virtually synonymous with modernism. They are responsible in no small way for the democratic movements of our time and for the extension of equal rights, liberties, and educational opportunities to all citizens. Science and technology have played a central role in improving the conditions of life, in enhancing health care and longevity, in decreasing drudgery and pain, and in making possible the bountiful abundance of consumer goods, economic well-being, and leisure for all sectors of society. To seek to restrict scientific research on allegedly moral grounds (as in the ban on stem-cell research) is short-sighted and destructive of what could be enormous benefits for humankind.

Fifth, we are troubled by the unilateral pre-emptive foreign policy of the Bush Administration, though we support the effort to build democracy in the Middle East, as difficult as that may now seem. This means a defense of human rights, civil liberties, and secular, non-theocratic states. It is sheer hypocrisy to support the separation of mosque and state in the Islamic world at the same time that the separation of church and state is being weakened at home. We grieve for the mounting numbers of American men and women killed or wounded in Iraq, but also for the massive loss of innocent civilian lives there. We believe that the United States should participate in helping to build a world community and that it should be a cooperating partner in the United Nations in matters of collective security. The departure of Colin Powell and the re-appointments of Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld in Bush’s second term are not good signs that the needed changes are likely to occur. With the ending of the Cold War, many hoped that a peaceful and prosperous world would result. Instead, a new and awesome arms race seems to be developing.

A Pivotal Battle over Moral Values

According to exit polls, a significant portion of the voters indicated that their support of President Bush was based on “moral values.” When you ask which values, there is clearly room for disagreement among Americans, but there is also some common ground—especially our shared belief that America is the land of opportunity and that to realize this entails freedom and equality for all. In talking about morality, the Religious Right has focused primarily on sexual issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The morality of their position is surely arguable. A majority of Americans still believe in reproductive freedom, the right of a woman to control her own body without being forced to carry a pregnancy to its full term. This is justified by an appeal to “freedom of choice,” a basic American value. Similarly, same-sex marriages were banned in eleven states, no doubt because they offended moral sensibilities; but this also raises the moral question of the denial of equal rights to some citizens. At one time, interracial marriages too offended the sensibilities of many Americans and were banned in numerous states. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached by recognizing civil unions for same-sex partners (even President Bush at some point said he believed in this), thus guaranteeing them equal rights under the law in matters such as visitation, property, insurance, and the like. The basic principle at stake here is, of course, “the right of privacy,” which is a basic American right, and which I submit that the Religious Right, which claims also to believe in individual liberty, ought to respect.

On the scale of moral values, secular humanists emphasize “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as basic to the scheme of American values. Indeed, most Americans strive for personal happiness in their own lives. One might think that high-profile preachers who emphasize obedience to God’s commandments and eternal salvation would therefore renounce the search for happiness. Yet I do not see Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, or Jerry Falwell abandoning pleasures, even luxuries, in their lives. On the contrary, they willingly enjoy the goods of modern life that our consumer economy affords them. I do not see them giving up their fine cars, good homes, jets, fine clothing and jewelry, and the other accoutrements of good living. Nor do most believers in the pews renounce the finer things of life when they can afford them. The tastes for such things seem to me to be thoroughly secular values, which might shock Jesus if he were to return from ancient Palestine, a land of deprivation and sorrow.

Contemporary American culture extols the virtues of the self-made person, the indomitable spirit of the individual entrepreneur, of the adventurer or explorer, of trailblazers like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and others. Most Americans seek good jobs and hope to succeed in their careers. This highlights the value of individual freedom and autonomy and the achievement motive, all of which express thoroughly secular, humanistic, and libertarian values.

Still other humanistic values are widely cherished, including the encouragement of creativity and the attainment of excellence. Indeed, our universities and colleges strive to provide opportunities for students to realize their creative potentials. Self-actualization is thus a noble goal. Surely, it is not immoral.

May I point out again that there is an historic philosophical and cultural heritage implicit in Western civilization, which encourages morality based on principles of reflective intelligence, prudence, and reason, not simply faith. This approach has been appealed to by Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, Mill, and even Confucius in ancient China. The need for moral inquiry is not sufficiently appreciated by many evangelicals, who likewise face moral dilemmas in life. We often are confronted with difficult choices, not necessarily between good and bad or right and wrong, but between two goods or two rights, both of which we cannot have, or between the lesser of two evils. In such situations, whatever a person’s moral grounding, some reflective wisdom is essential in helping us to make wise choices. I wonder if President Bush took an introductory philosophy or ethics course at Yale, and if so, whether he learned something from it? If he had, we all would be better off.

There are any number of complex moral issues about whose solutions morally earnest people can honestly disagree. These concern questions of war and peace, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, infanticide, animal rights, the distribution of goods and services in society, and more. On these issues, religious as well as secular persons may end up on either side of any question. For example, Mr. Bush, fundamentalist Baptists, and Muslims favor capital punishment, while the Catholic Bishops of America, liberal Protestants, Jews, individual Catholics, and many secularists are opposed. We see a similar diversity regarding questions about “the moral justification of euthanasia or assisted suicide.” Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants are usually opposed, while many liberal religionists and secularists may support “death with dignity” or the principle of informed consent as stated in a living will.

Economic and political policies engender heated controversies in society, but they also express profound differences in moral values. There are those who support laissez-faire policies, believing that the government should play little or no role in the private sector, while others believe that the government has an obligation to be concerned with social welfare. Those committed to “Evangelical Capitalism” believe that tax policies favoring the wealthy reward those who deserve it, a status that is in some sense divinely decreed. This often simply masks hypocrisy, greed, and corruption. Laissez-faire policies, evangelical capitalists believe, are powerful incentives for economic growth. Others appealing to “principles of fairness” support progressive taxation, a rising minimum wage, and universal health care. They oppose the elimination of estate taxes and preferential treatment for dividends and capital gains.

Many people, religionists and secularists alike, believe in extending moral caring beyond our own society to all members of the global community; others are adamant that our primary concern should be our own country. Secular humanists in particular have advocated the development of a new planetary ethics, in which each and every person on the planet is considered to have equal dignity and value.

The Christian Phalanx

The evangelical Right has attacked the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry ever since the day of our formation in 1980. The reason why we decided to create Free Inquiry was to respond to the unremitting attacks on secular humanism by the so-called “Moral Majority,” which had just been founded by Jerry Falwell and his right-wing cohorts. It has been an eventful quarter of a century. We have been in the front lines of the culture wars throughout our history, blamed for every defect in American society. We were among the first to point out the dangers of extremist religion in the United States.

In the first issue of Free Inquiry, we stated that “the fundamental premises of the modern world and the Enlightenment are either being forgotten or completely ignored. The commitment to scientific evidence and reason of the method of knowing, belief in the value of individual freedom and dignity, and the view that superstition can be eradicated by increased education and affluence—all of these are replaced by positions that are often blatantly irrational.”

In a subsequent issue of Free Inquiry, we announced the formation of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. In that statement, we observed that “we are confronted . . . with a situation of imbalance. Tens of millions of people are exposed daily to exhortations about religion and the Bible.” And we went on to say that “fundamentalist religion may become a powerful political voice.” In our view, “the proper mode of response is to appeal to the good sense of the American people . . . to defend pluralism and the right of dissent.” We also stated that “ we submit that it is necessary to go one step further and question the validity of the Bible, openly and publicly.” That statement turned out to be prophetic. Little did we imagine at that time that the evangelical Right would have such an inordinate influence upon the Bush Administration and that so many aspects of its agenda would be adopted. It was these “Evangelical foot soldiers” who were bussed from the churches to the polls and proved to be the key factor in the re-election of Mr. Bush.

On November 9, 2004, Jerry Falwell announced that he had launched a new “Faith and Values Coalition.” Its board is chaired by Tim LaHaye, the embittered archfoe of secular humanism. This new coalition has announced a three-fold platform: “(1) the confirmation of pro-life, strict-constructionist U.S. Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges, (2) the passage of a constitutional Federal Marriage Amendment, and (3) the election of another socially-, fiscally-, and politically- conservative president in 2008.” Would Jesus have supported this socially-, fiscally-, and politically- conservative agenda? How presumptuous to imply that he would be a Republican!

We are thus confronted anew with an emboldened Christian phalanx. The term phalanx is adopted from ancient Greek culture. As depicted in the film Alexander, infantry troops were marshaled in close formation in a phalanx to do battle. The definition of phalanx is “a body of heavily armed infantry in ancient Greece formed in close, deep ranks and files; a body of troops in close array.” Thus, we face the continued effort by a religious army in our midst to assault American democracy. Clearly, the Christian phalanx played a key role in the election of the Bush Administration. Leaders of the Christian Right are continuing in their efforts to do nothing less than control the United States. The gauntlet has been laid down.

We need to formulate a new plan of action and response, and we need the help of our readers in this battle. We need to define and defend the naturalistic outlook based on science and humanistic values based upon reason. These go back at least to the Renaissance, to the emergence of modern science, and to the progressive development of American democracy. If the Religious Right continues to expand its influence, then we are clearly faced with a clear and present danger to our liberties.

We need to enlist a broad coalition, not only of humanists, secularists, rationalists, and skeptics, but of all like-minded citizens from various walks of life. We are hopeful that America can come together and form a new consensus in support of the ideals of American democracy before it is too late.

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.  

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