Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 7 September 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Second place college essay

Wall of separation requires vigilance

America is not a Christian nation. We are not one nation under god. We are a secular nation and the better for it. The unfounded belief that we are a godly or Christian nation attempts to draw support from random quotes, government prayer, the religious beliefs of the founders and our founding documents.

“Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on money are used to support this historical flight of fancy. These quotes are not even from the founding generation. “One nation under God” was added to the pledge in 1954, and “In God We Trust” was first added to some coins in 1863. Their existence supports only one conclusion: That the religious majority used periods of weakened civil rights — the Civil War  and the McCarthy era — to push their agenda on us all.   

Government prayer, often used to support the Christian nation fantasy, was once held constitutional solely on the basis of its history. “[I]f any group of law students was asked to apply the [proper test] to the question of legislative prayer, they would nearly unanimously find the practice to be unconstitutional,” Justice William Brennan wrote in his dissent in the Supreme Court’s decision approving some legislative prayers. When constitutional tests are applied, courts are less likely to be hoodwinked by history.

Our country also had a long history of segregation, which offered it no protection against eventually being declared unconstitutional. This tradition continues with the recent holding that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional and will someday reach all congressional prayers. 

The ongoing battle over the religious faith of the founders, while interesting, is irrelevant to the argument that we are “one nation under God.” Personal theistic choices do not claim ownership over other ideas. Islamic mathematicians developed algebra, not “Muslim math.” Vaccines and blue jeans are not “Jewish vaccines” or “Jewish blue jeans.”

Similarly, the U.S. is not Christian because some of the founders were Christian. This reasoning is illogical and ignores the contribution of the many founders who were not Christians. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, some of the brightest stars of the age, were, at most, deists.  

The fallacy gets no support from the founding documents. The deistic reference in the Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their Creator,” is unhelpful. Deism, the belief that a being created the universe, is not Christian. It is not even a religion. Deists have no church, no priests, no saviors, no divine intervention and no religious texts.

The absolute nature of religious belief precludes rational discussion or compromise on important issues.

The Declaration of Independence, amazing though it is, did not establish the United States of America. It severed 13 colonies from a “divinely sanctioned” tyrant. The Constitution created the new nation. We the people, not god, created this nation on our own authority. We had as little need for divine authority as we did for a divine king.

There is not one mention of god, the bible or Jesus in the Constitution’s 7,591 words. Freedom of expression, including the making of graven images and taking the Lord’s name in vain, is constitutionally protected. We get trials by an impartial jury,  not a capricious god or murderous mob. Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited, but so revered in Christianity that a symbol of torture and death, the cross, is universally recognized as Christian.

The Constitution, unlike the bible or god, allows for the possibility that it is fallible and makes provisions for amendment.   Slavery was abolished using these provisions, despite its biblical sanction. God supposedly sacrificing his son to pay for the sins of the world is an abrogation of the personal rights and responsibilities on which the Constitution and our system of justice were founded.     

Most importantly, our Constitution deliberately separates church and state, prohibits a religious test for public office and, as Alexander Hamilton put it, gives the president “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” The same is true of Congress, which has limited, enumerated powers, none stemming from religion.  

Our history, until revised by Texas school boards, clearly shows “the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” These claims are wrong and insulting to the legacy and sacrifice of our founders who, regardless of their beliefs, chose to safeguard liberty by keeping religion separate from government — a wise decision given that religion and government are a toxic mix.

James Madison saw the danger: “[Ecclesiastical establishments have upheld] the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people,” and “[r]ulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries.”

Religion’s dangers

Religion in government destroys public debate, breeds dishonesty and replaces civil authority with “spiritual tyranny.”  
The absolute nature of religious belief precludes rational discussion or compromise on important issues like stem cells, evolution, AIDS and gay marriage. Under this absolutism, debates degenerate from exchanges of ideas into shouting matches. 

In the gay marriage debate, religion is used to justify prejudice and the denial of rights to consenting adults. A church may refuse anyone a religious marriage ceremony, but our governments may not refuse the civil rights that come with marriage.  Every citizen has equal rights under the law. Religious justifications of slavery fell to secular law, and so will religious “definitions” of marriage.

Religious language in politics can kill. By 2008, AIDS had killed more than 25 million people and orphaned 15 million children worldwide.  Yet the Bush administration relief plan for AIDS in Africa included funding prohibitions based on religious edicts (abstinence before marriage) and not on effectiveness. While the relief saved lives, had its sole criteria been effectiveness it would have saved many, many more. 

Religion in public debate opens believers to political manipulation. Like the politicians of ancient Rome, politicians today consider religion useful. Believers’ faith can be used to manipulate them. Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests, voters impose their own.

Politicians and religious leaders seduce these single-minded citizens to vote for their religion and against their self interests in virtually every other respect. Millions of uninsured American families are against universal health care because men like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council preached about “significant threats to the God-given right to human life through government funding of abortions, our health from rationing.” Perkins exhorted followers to “face this moral crisis by taking action and obeying the biblical mandate to pray.”

Those who demand professions of religious faith give politicians a powerful weapon of manipulation. Statistically, if 15% of Americans are nonreligious, that means 80 members of Congress are probably being forced to hide their true beliefs by these voter-imposed religious tests.

Hiding one’s nonbelief is not a new phenomenon. In 1874, John Stuart Mill said that “the world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.”

Evangelical churches supported the separation of church and state during America’s early years, but now the religious majority has turned its back on that legacy. From rewriting textbooks, to imposing religious law for African AIDS relief, to holding prayer above the Constitution, they seek to impose on us the spiritual tyranny James Madison warned us about. To tolerate tyranny is to be a slave.   

We are not slaves. We shall not suffer the legislative and mental chains that religion would use to bind us. The idea that patriotism requires religious belief is revolting. To truly love freedom, to support the Constitution, to honor our founding generation and our nation is to strive to build up the “wall of separation,” not tear it down.    

Our courts must be the guardians of this wall. We must speak out against the toxic mix of religion and government. If constant vigilance is the price of freedom, then the price of complacency is this poisonous blend. If we do nothing, the mixture ferments, growing more noxious. “The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents,” wrote James Madison.

Nor can we wait. Every freethinking American has a duty to stand up against this tyranny and to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state that our founders worked so hard to build. 

Andrew Seidel, 28, Pueblo, Colo., is enrolled in the University of Denver School of Law’s master of laws in environmental and natural resources law and policy (L.L.M.) program. He has a B.S from Tulane University, where he majored in neuroscience and environmental science. After two years of pursuing his passion for photography and leading tours in the Grand Canyon, he earned a law degree at Tulane.
He received a $1,000 scholarship from FFRF.

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