The separation of church and state in the U.S. constitution is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Those who want to escape from organized religion must fight for that freedom against those in power who would foist religious views upon them at every turn. The religious Pledge of Allegiance continues to be recited in public schools, despite its being clearly unconstitutional.
Religious oppression is far worse in other countries than it is in the United States. Living here is not like living in an Islamic republic, where rejecting Islam (apostasy) is punishable by death. Still, that is a very low bar. Countries that lack religious freedom have a very bad quality of life in other respects, as I pointed out in my book Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.
It is not unreasonable to expect that the home of modern democracy would grant its citizens the same freedom to reject religion as residents of other developed democracies enjoy, especially when that right is written into the U.S. Constitution in the sense that no religion may be established by the state.
Yet the establishment of the Christian religion is apparent everywhere. I would like to know why my taxes are used to pay a Christian chaplain who is hired by Congress to lead that body in prayer. Why do the U.S. Armed Forces, including the National Guard, use my tax money to pay chaplains who lead the troops in prayer?
I am not a constitutional scholar, but it is hard to see how these activities could be interpreted as anything but establishment of religion by the state. Why is the president sworn into office using a Bible and religious language implying that the office draws strength from God, in violation of the Article VI prohibition on religious texts as a condition for holding public office?
In Our Thoughts and Prayers
It would be easy to write off the presidential oath as an exercise in tradition were it not for the fact that the head of state engages in a constant flow of religious cheerleading. If something bad happens to Americans, the president informs their families that the victims are “in our thoughts and prayers.”
This is an ambiguous formulation. Who is doing the praying, the Obamas or the government? A more irritating interpretation is that all Americans are praying for the victims. When the head of state is responding to a national disaster, that seems the most plausible interpretation.
President Barack Obama is not alone in his frequent reference to religion; most other recent presidents did exactly the same, suggesting that religious utterances are perceived as safe ground for American presidents. Indeed, if one listened to the content of Obama’s public statements, one might be forgiven for concluding that he was a religious leader rather than a secular one. That would certainly explain why he might bother to visit the pope in Rome, seeming like a supplicant before the outlandish pomp and circumstance of the Vatican. It would also explain his fondness for hosting “prayer breakfasts.”
I have some questions for the president and the Supreme Court about the presumed separation of church and state.
Questions for the President and the Supreme Court
• Why, so long after the Cold War has ended, do we still have “In God we trust” on our coins and paper money?
• How can the governor of Alabama, on his first day in office, say that people who are not Christians are not his brothers or sisters? Why does my local TV weatherman in Alabama tell me that I will need an umbrella on my way to church?
• Why are religious employers making health-care decisions about employees who do not share their beliefs?
• Why are states being allowed to ban contraception and abortions, contrary to the Roe v. Wade decision?
• How can the Texas Board of Education be allowed to insert religiously inspired falsehoods into school science texts?
• Why are atheists discriminated against in hiring decisions and generally unable to hold political office in America?
• Belatedly on board with gay rights, will the president now support the civil rights of those who want freedom from religion?
• What is he going to do to protect the civil rights of those who want to be free of religion in America?
Nigel Barber is the author of the e-book Why Atheism Will Replace Religion. This essay originally appeared in The Huffington Post.