Secular People under Siege

Robyn E. Blumner

President Trump’s personal appearance at the so-called March for Life, the first by a sitting president, solidified what has been apparent since his inauguration: Trump sees eliminating all daylight between himself and the religious Right as his best path to retaining power.

“Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” Trump declared to the assemblage. “The far left is actively working to erase our God-given rights.”

Note the “God-given rights” dog-whistle language. Donald Trump is not a deeply religious man, but he plays one on TV.

He has decided that wrapping himself in sanctimony and taking aim at secularism will be the hallmark of his administration.

Trump’s State of the Union speech was a case in point. He derided efforts to keep church and state separate and purposely conflated one’s personal liberty to exercise religious freedom, with government-sponsored religious exhortations and symbols, as if they are one and the same. Here Trump was speaking to the deepest desires of Christian nationalists:

My administration is also defending religious liberty, and that includes the Constitutional right to pray in public schools. In America, we do not punish prayer. We do not tear down crosses. We do not ban symbols of faith. We do not muzzle preachers and pastors. In America, we celebrate faith. We cherish religion. We lift our voices in prayer, and we raise our sights to the Glory of God!

Maybe he didn’t say outright that secular people are unAmerican and should go to hell, but that was the clear subtext.

This tsunami of hostility targeted at the secular community has played out in a variety of destructive ways from all corners of the executive branch (and coming soon from the judicial branch, thanks to the avalanche of Trump appointees). But nothing has so exemplified this contempt for us, our way of thinking, and our place in this country more than the speech Attorney General William Barr delivered at the University of Notre Dame this past October. Barr put a bullseye on all our backs, declaring America’s greatest enemy within to be the country’s “militant secularists,” a.k.a. you and me.

In a purposeful misreading of history, Barr declared that “In the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people—a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.”

Barr must be unfamiliar with Thomas Jefferson’s assiduous efforts to rewrite the Bible, leaving Jesus’s miracles and mysticism on the cutting-room floor. He must be unfamiliar with the rejection of prayer at the first constitutional convention and the founders’ decision to keep any mention of religion out of the original Constitution except to protect public officials from having to accede to one.

So why all this vehemence? Is this just garden-variety fear and loathing on the part of true believers toward those who don’t share their delusions? Well, that’s part of it. Barr, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and many others in the Trump administration were handpicked to make their Christianity a prominent feature of their policy making. Pence is a dyed-in-the-wool Christian conservative who made a career of attacking the theory of evolution and trying to defund Planned Parenthood. Pompeo has gone so far as to post his speech titled “Being a Christian Leader” on the State Department’s home page. And DeVos spent millions of dollars as a private philanthropist to get taxpayers to support vouchers for Christian education as a way to bring about “greater Kingdom gain.”

It is not much of a leap to surmise that these leaders who think Christianity is central to good governance also equate it with upstanding citizenship, leaving secular people stained by the obverse. They likely see a lack of a god-belief as indicative of moral failure, whereas we see it as a triumph of intellect over indoctrination having nothing to do with our connection to our nation or good values.

Barr explicitly doubled down on this in January when he declared on New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s radio show that the nation’s founders believed in “the centrality of religion to the health of American democracy” because it requires “people that are capable of disciplining themselves according to moral values.” Barr was implying—as warped and wrong as it is—that secular people lack the rectitude needed for democracy to work.

It’s also not a coincidence that this antipathy dovetails with a desired political outcome. Marginalizing and denouncing secular people and secularism is a political winner for the Trump Administration without any downsides. Evangelicals, orthodox Catholics, and fundamentalists eat it up like catnip.

Meanwhile, the response to Barr’s declarations from Democratic leaders was to whistle and avert their eyes. Democrats don’t run to the defense of secular people as they would other minority groups (except for a few notable exceptions, such as the courageous members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus). Sadly, to most Democrats, the secular electorate is like having a weird uncle pay for college. While they are grateful for the support, they don’t want to have to publicly acknowledge the relation.

It’s not new to see modern Republican administrations locking arms with evangelicals, orthodox Catholics, and fundamentalists. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush used the strategy very effectively. What is different in this case is something even more subversive. The Trump Administration is delegitimizing intellectualism.

Historically, authoritarian regimes have worked to confine or eliminate intellectuals, teachers, academics, writers, and artists to keep the populace credulous and malleable. General Franco laid waste to the intellectuals of Spain. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia targeted those who used their brains for a living. China’s communist dictatorship reeducated and renounced those who didn’t fit the peasant ideal.

The Trump administration is not a brutal dictatorship, but targeting secularism and secular people for denunciation has a similar ominous ring to it. In the United States, nonbelievers tend to be more educated and informed than the general population, and our skepticism is an outgrowth of that training.

Secular people tend to be more skeptical of all claims from authority, not just claims from religious leaders. Many if not most of us used our rational faculties to power our way through a widely embraced, force-fed mythology. We won’t be so easily fooled again. And it is this lack of gullibility that makes us highly suspect to an administration that relies so heavily on truth-denial and reality bending to maintain support.

(This is also where the Center for Inquiry differentiates itself from other secular groups. While we are at the forefront of church-state separation issues, filing briefs in every Establishment Clause case that comes before the U.S. Supreme Court, we also challenge all forms of magical thinking. We help people sharpen their “con-dar,” the better to separate truth from falsehood and reality from wishful thinking.)

An administration that makes war on truth, reality, and evidence is going to have us in its sights. We see through lies and diversions; therefore, we are viewed as enemies of the state.

Barr’s emboldened assault on secular people is part and parcel of the Trump administration’s assault on the truth. You need gullible people for that to work, and we are a fly in that very dangerous ointment.

Robyn E. Blumner

Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.