This column originally was published on Huffington Post and appears here with the author’s permission.
At the Republican National Convention, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was loud and clear: What makes us Americans is our shared belief in God. That’s it, above all else. Forget adherence to the Constitution, forget a hatred of tyranny, forget a love for baseball. Forget watching reality TV while ingesting a double cheeseburger, large nachos and a 32-ounce orange soda.
No, what binds Americans together is, according to this Christian politician, theism.
As Rubio proclaimed: “We are special because we’re united not by a common race or ethnicity. We’re bound together by common values . . . that almighty God is the source of all we have.” And furthermore: “Faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”
Rubio’s wrong. There are countless values that are far more important than having faith in an invisible, invertebrate, unknowable deity. Valuing education, for example. Valuing democracy. Valuing human rights. Valuing free speech. Valuing trees, mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers and the ozone layer. Valuing affordable health care. Valuing nutritious school lunches. Valuing one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbors. It is far more important to value and love one another, and to act on that love, than to have faith in a god.
Rubio is also wrong about something else: Faith in God is not shared by all Americans. In fact, millions of hardworking, child-raising, military-joining, coal-mining and liberty-loving Americans live their lives without faith in God. Millions more live their lives without any interest in religion whatsoever. The statistics are surprisingly clear on this front.
In the 1990s, about 8% of Americans claimed “none” as their religion. Then, in 2007, the Pew Forum found that the percentage of nonreligious Americans had doubled to 16%. In 2010, Putnam and Campbell’s national survey put the percentage at 17%. In 2011, the General Social Survey reported it at 18%. This year, the Pew Forum bumped it up to 19%. (Anyone see a pattern here?)
Then, according to the 2012 WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” a whopping 30% of Americans describe themselves as nonreligious. So whether we’re talking 16 or 19 or 30%, we’re talking tens of millions of Americans who are more secular than not.
Of course, not all Americans who claim to be nonreligious are atheists or agnostics, but a very significant proportion are. In fact, according to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, of those Americans who self-identify as nonreligious, about half are atheist or agnostic. Another 23% believe in a higher power but not a personal God. Only 21% are firm God-believers.
What’s really un-American
Now, maybe there is a god. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe there is a heaven. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe the precious, red blood of Jesus saves us from our sins. Maybe it doesn’t. But the answers to these questions, whatever they may be, are not what defines us as Americans, or as citizens, or as humans.
And to suggest that to be a good, decent American requires faith in a Creator, or to imply that Christian values are the only values, or to argue that our laws are given to us solely by God, or to constantly denigrate nonbelievers as somehow less-than-welcome partners in the American enterprise — well, that’s all, quite frankly, very un-American.
After all, the brilliant founders of this nation made their vision quite clear, as they proclaimed in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797: “The government of the United States of Americas is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, only the third such unanimous vote in the Senate out of 339 votes that had taken place up to that time.
And, the writers of our Constitution left God out of the entire body of that foundational, brilliant and oh-so-secular document.
Marco Rubio should know all of this. Perhaps he does. But heck, to Rubio, faith in his deity is clearly of greater value than historical accuracy or embracing all Americans regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. He said so himself.
Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., is an FFRF member and a leading authority on how secular societies measure up favorably to theocratic ones.