Last month, President Obama tried something new—he met with the top leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals for the first time. According to NAE President Leith Anderson, “The NAE, which represents 40 denominations across some 45,000 local churches, extends a request to meet with the president each year. This is the first time Obama has accepted.” Disturbing? Yes. Surprising? No, it’s election season.
In Anderson’s experience "Evangelicals have had good access to the Obama White House.” With that access NAE and the President discussed a broad range of issues including immigration reform, discriminatory hiring for religious groups receiving federal funds, international religious freedom, the budget, same-sex marriage, and “the right of military chaplains to voice their opposition to homosexuality.”
I would suggest to President Obama that his time could be better spent. For instance, he could host the first Atheist Summit at the White House. Atheists, agnostics, and Freethinkers make up around 20% of this country and that number is rising. Why not court our vote? A closer examination of the issues raised confirms that this time would have been better spent in a Freethinking summit.
Immigration - Does the religious lobby really have anything authoritative or worthwhile to say about immigration reform? No, next issue.
Discriminatory hiring – A group that accepts federal money also takes on the responsibility of complying with federal law. A private religious group may choose to discriminate, but the federal government must not support that discrimination. It is their choice: discriminate or receive federal funds.
International religious freedom – This sounds great and as a member of a persecuted group, atheists, I support religious freedom here and abroad. But what did they actually discuss? As Anderson put it, “protecting the lives of Christians persecuted in other countries.” Anderson is against France’s recent burqa ban, but if NAE supports international religious freedom that also means supporting the rights of nonbelievers.
Budget – It is understandable that churches would want to discuss money. In 2005 alone, faith-based organizations received $2.2 billion of federal funding (see tab "Where Does the Money Go?"). Of course they want to make sure the funds continue to flow.
Same-sex marriage – Marriage is recognition by the state of a contract between two consenting adults and granting certain rights pursuant to that contract. Withholding that recognition and the commensurate legal rights from a same-sex couple is a violation of the Constitution. While churches may refuse to preside over the ceremony or recognize the union, governments may not.
Chaplains - Why even entertain the idea that chaplains can use their position of power in the United State Military as a platform for hate speech? If they want to preach hatred and intolerance they must do so on their congregation’s dime, not the taxpayers (i.e., they should quit). This is exactly why the man who wrote the Constitution thought that military chaplains (and congressional chaplains) were unconstitutional (James Madison, Detached Memorandum [ca. 1817]).
Again, I would suggest that the President’s time could be better spent. If he wishes to court voters, why not look to the 20% of the population that has never been addressed by a presidential candidate? We have plenty of issues we could discuss: education in general, science education in particular, upholding the Constitution (National Day of Prayer anyone?), and including the nonreligious in programs that advocate religious freedom. Mr. President, would you like to meet with the Freedom From Religion Foundation?
Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s newest staff attorney. Read his full bio.