Freethought Today · Jan/Feb 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

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Debunking the Christian nation myth - Andrew Seidel

By Andrew Seidel

 

Andrew Seidel, FFRF staff attorney, gave this speech accompanied by PowerPoint (edited here for print) in October at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on Oct. 13, 2012 in Portland, Ore.

Id like to thank Dan and Annie Laurie for asking me to speak here today. It’s quite an honor to share the stage with such illustrious speakers. I’d also like to take a moment to thank all the FFRF members out there. Your generosity and support make my job possible, and I absolutely love my job.  

Today I want to discuss two things: One, the idea that we’re founded as a Christian nation. When you hear that argument, you may debunk it using, say, the Treaty of Tripoli, which most of you are probably familiar with, which says we’re not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. Or maybe you cite the First Amendment or the fact that religious oaths are constitutionally prohibited or that the Constitution is entirely godless.

When you use those facts to refute their first argument, your opponent will fall back on the second argument, which is that we’re founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Typically, you’ll hear three arguments as to why we are founded as a Christian nation: “In God We Trust” or “One nation under God” (these silly little phrases always seem to come up), the Declaration of Independence made us a Christian nation, and the claim that the founders were all Christian.

You obviously know that “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God” are not from the founding era. The former first appeared on one coin in 1863 and was required on currency only in 1956 and the latter was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.

The timing of these late additions is telling. Lincoln had declared martial law in 1863, the year the battle of Gettysburg was fought. Habeas corpus was suspended in 1861 for the first time in U.S. history.  Brothers were killing brothers, and the country was literally tearing itself apart. It’s at this “propitious” time that Christian nationalists — a phrase I’m going to use to describe anybody who claims that we’re a Christian nation — push their religion on us all. 

When Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase ordered James Pollock, U.S. Mint director, to make the change on one coin, he wrote: “We claim to be a Christian Nation. . . . The time for this or the introduction of a similar motto is propitious. ’Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when man’s strength is weakness, when our strength and our nation’s salvation must be in the God of Battles.”

The same thing happened in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyism and the “Red scare,” marked by witch hunts for nonbelievers and communists, blacklists, loyalty oaths and arrests. Chief Justice Earl Warren at the time said that if the Bill of Rights were put to a vote it would lose.

The second thing to note about these changes is their effect. That religion is divisive is probably not a controversial claim to make here. The founders were well aware of this. James Madison in the “Federalist Papers, Number Ten” wrote that the zeal of different opinions concerning religion has divided humankind into parties and enflamed mutual animosity. This is one of the reasons the founders wanted to keep religion out of government. The original motto was “E pluribus unum” (from many, one). The Christian nationalists erased that unifying theme and put their divisive, religious theme in its place.

The same thing happened with the pledge. It’s even more striking because they actually divided the indivisible and then injected religion. 

Natural law

When discussing the Declaration of Independence, the Religious Right typically focuses on four phrases from it: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “their Creator,” “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence.” Notice that not a single one of these is Christian. There’s no mention of Jesus or Yahweh or the God of Abraham.

There are two competing views on natural law. The first is that laws or rights are given to us by a divine being. The second is that we have rights because we’re human.

We know which one of these Thomas Jefferson was talking about because he wrote about natural law in several other places. A great quote from his opinion of the French treaties: “Questions of the natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man. Those who write treatises on natural law can only declare what their own moral sense and reason dictate.”

Human rights — natural law — are discoverable by reason. This is most certainly not a divine idea of natural law. Jefferson also said in 1774 that “a free people claim their rights” — they are “not a gift of the chief magistrate.” I think that would also include they are not a gift from God. People have to assert those rights.

Moreover, the Declaration of Independence has two principles that Judeo-Christianity is directly opposed to: When you have a tyrannical government, it’s a “duty” and a “right” to throw off that government; and it explicitly states that governments are instituted by the people, not by the magistrate, not by the king. The bible directly contradicts these two ideas.

The Book of Romans in the New Testament says, “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” The Old Testament Book of Daniel says basically the same thing: “The Most High has sovereignty over the reign of mortals and gives it to who He will.”

These principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out.

Founders’ faith

George Washington died in 1799. The next year, Mason Weems, a parson, wrote a book about him, a book in which we get the myths about the cherry tree and about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. There’s no evidence to suggest either happened, and the prayer story didn’t actually come out in Weems’ book until something like the 34th edition.

These claims are reminiscent of Mormons posthumously baptizing people — claiming that the founders were all Christian and therefore we’re a Christian nation. It’s also incredibly rude. These men and women sacrificed an awful lot — lives, blood, treasure — and it just ignores that and attributes to God this monumental achievement.

More importantly, what the founders thought personally about God or Jesus is irrelevant to the nation itself. Religion does not claim ownership over other ideas generated by a mind. For instance, there’s no such thing as Jewish blue jeans. We just call them blue jeans, even though they were invented by Levi Strauss. Same thing with vaccines. They’re not Jewish vaccines, they’re just vaccines. Algebra is just algebra, not Muslim math.  

Whatever the founders chose to do in their private lives, publicly they chose to erect the wall of separation between church and state. You’ve all probably heard the quip that if we’re a Christian nation, you might as well call us a white nation. That’s a very effective argument to make. The idea that they were all Christian and therefore founded us as a Christian nation is absolute nonsense.  

When I set out to debunk the Christian nationalist fallback argument, it took me a while to discover what a Judeo-Christian principle is. It turns out the best answer comes from Harry Truman, president during McCarthy’s rise to fame. Known for being a plain speaker, he occasionally used vulgarity.

Arguably, the most vulgar thing he ever said was, “The fundamental basis for all government is in the bible. It started with Moses on the mountain.” He then mentions the New Testament and the Ten Commandments.

Let’s compare the Judeo-Christian principles in the bible and the Ten Commandments to our nation’s founding principles.

The commandments

First, which commandments? There are four different sets of Ten Commandments in the bible. The first set is given to Moses on the mountain. He comes down the mountain and finds his followers worshipping a golden calf. They are breaking one of the commandments, a commandment they don’t know about yet. His response is to smash the commandments on the ground in anger and slaughter 3,000 of his friends, brothers and neighbors. Mark that term for later — friends, brothers and neighbors.

God orders Moses to make a new set and promises to sweep all of the current residents off the land in favor of the Israelites. So the second set is sealed with the promise of genocide, and in that set, God lays claim to all the firstborn of Israel. The third set is substantially similar to the first, and the fourth set is just a list of people who are cursed.

Any given bible cannot agree on which 10 are the 10. Actually, different religious traditions do not agree on how the commandments should be numbered or translated either. Such discrepancies may seem like small differences, but when you couple unshakable certainty with a claim to hold the ultimate truth, everything, no matter how small, matters. There is no such thing as a small religious difference.

Which set? I’m going to use the first set, the one that people are most familiar with because of Charlton Heston. We’ll use the Protestant version.  

First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” This obviously conflicts with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, but it also conflicts with Article VI of the Constitution. The Constitution specifically says that it, not God, is the supreme law of the land.

This commandment conflicts with the constitutional Supremacy Clause and the First Amendment. So it did not have an influence because it conflicts.

Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” But read the unabridged commandment, which continues, “for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God punishing the children for the inequity of the parents until the third or fourth generation.” This conflicts with the First Amendment again. You can make as many idols as you want, but the Constitution also directly prohibits punishing children for their parents’ crimes. Article III: “No attainder of treason shall work a corruption of blood.” That means if you are guilty of treason, only you will receive punishment, not your children, and certainly not your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This also conflicts with our principle of justice that only the guilty are punished.  

Third Commandment: “Thou shall not take the name of thy Lord thy God in vain.” I claim that this is void for vagueness. Under the 14th Amendment, laws have to be simple enough for people to understand them, so that they know what action is being prohibited.

I’ve asked this of a number of people and get different answers. The best I’ve heard is that it prevents people from swearing an oath and then violating that oath. It fails to give adequate guidance. Quite obviously, this also runs afoul of freedom of speech.

Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Again, read the whole commandment: “You shall do no work neither shall your male or female slave. In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”

First of all, we’re supposed to be celebrating because a God who is all-powerful took six days to make the earth and on the seventh day he had to rest? I call this celebrating lazy omnipotence.

Most importantly, this commandment sanctions slavery. We do have to concede the bible has had a severe influence on the history of slavery. Every original justification for continuing the practice came from the bible. We can concede that to the Christian nationalists. They are welcome to this shameful influence.  

Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and mother.” I don’t really like this commandment, not because I don’t want to honor my mother and father, but I think it should be simply to honor people. This really didn’t have an effect or influence on our nation’s principles, unless somebody can correct me later.

Six through nine

I’m going to group these next few together and come back to adultery at the end: “You shall not kill; don’t steal; and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”

These commandments are not Judeo-Christian at all. They are universal principles that apply to absolutely everyone. All successful societies have discovered them.

Secondly, the Judeo-Christian interpretation is actually less moral because it is not universally applied, but applied only to one’s “neighbor.”  

In the original Hebrew translations, there are no punctuation marks, no paragraph breaks, no line breaks. These commandments could be read so that “against your neighbor” applies to all the preceding commandments starting with “you shall not murder.”

So it could mean, you shall not murder your neighbor, you shall not steal from your neighbor, you shall not lie to your neighbor. I submit to you that that’s actually the better reading. 

Who is your “neighbor?” In Leviticus, “any of your people” is how they define neighbor. “Stand against the blood of your neighbor,” “your people,” “the sons of your own people,” “your countrymen.” It’s only the people who believe in the same God as you, your co-religionists. That’s what neighbor means in the Old Testament.

Immediately after getting these commandments, the Israelites commit genocide after genocide. But none of the slain are Israelites. So they are not actually breaking the “don’t kill” commandment if it only applies to Israelites.

“You shall not commit adultery.” The Seventh Commandment actually did have an influence. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Christianity has an incredibly powerful history influencing legislation concerning sex in the U.S. It’s also a shameful history.

In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court in 1967 overturned miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage. One law was justified like this: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents.”

Condemnation of homosexuality is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian “moral” standards. Finally, a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. Again, Christianity had a very shameful influence.  

Tenth Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” Again, read the commandment fully: “or fields, nor his male or female slaves, nor his ox or ass, or anything that belongs to him.”

Women are chattel. Slavery is condoned. This is thought crime. Big Brother is watching. Christopher Hitchens was very fond of pointing this out. This completely conflicts with the First Amendment. 

To sum up the Ten Commandments and their influence on our nation’s founding: they either have no influence, being in conflict with our founding principles or have a shameful influence.

Hell cruel, unusual

Obedience is a theme that runs through the whole bible. In the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Lot and his wife are fleeing, Lot’s wife disobeys the angelic command to not turn around and look. She disobeys and is turned into a pillar of salt.

And obviously, Isaac and Abraham, the sacrifice, the murder of a child, is often held up as the ideal for obeying God. This is fundamentally opposed to our nature and founding principles.

Edmund Burke wrote: “In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole.” In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about the importance of “securing freedom and property to all men, and above all things, the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

People are required to believe this nonsense by their bible, but they are allowed to believe nonsense because our nation cherishes freedom and has enshrined it, not obedience, in our founding documents.

The Golden Rule? Here’s a list [PowerPoint slide] of Golden Rules that predate the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus is down there at No. 14. Hillel is down there at No. 12. We have found equivalence of the Golden Rule as far back as 2000 B.C.E. in Egypt. It’s arrogant for Christian nationalist Judeo-Christians to claim as their own a rule that is universally known and not even original to their tradition.

Hell is definitely a Judeo-Christian principle. More properly, it’s a Christian principle because Jesus invented hell. In the Old Testament is a place called sheol, which was a place for the dead to go but not a place of eternal torment.

On the other hand, the bible describes hell as where “The worm dyeth not and the fire is not quenched.” It’s described as a burning wind, fiery oven, unquenchable fire, furnace of fire, eternal fire and eternal punishment. You should get the sense that hell is hot and it’s eternal.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Need I say more?

The Supreme Court has actually said that being locked in a jail cell with a five-pack-a-day smoker is cruel and unusual, so I think that hell most certainly qualifies.

Finally, the Judeo-Christian principle: Vicarious redemption, that Jesus died for your sins. This is a total and complete abrogation of personal responsibility. Our entire system of justice is founded on the idea that people are responsible for their own actions.

But abrogation of personal responsibility is the central tenet of Christianity. This conflicts with the central tenet of our system of justice and government. You can imagine how this would go: The defendant gets on the stand and admits to raping children but says, “It’s OK, your honor, I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior and he forgave my sins, so you don’t need to punish me.”

I’d like to leave you with this quote from James Madison. It’s my favorite quote and is on my wall at FFRF. It’s how I motivate myself every day:

“It’s proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.  We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of all citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedence.”

I hope that I’ve given you some mental ammunition to counter the pernicious notion that we are a Christian nation or founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We must prevent that myth from growing and becoming entangled in precedent.

Thank you. 

Andrew Seidel graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School and has completed a master of laws at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law. He practiced law in Colorado before joining FFRF as a constitutional consultant in 2011. He became a member of the Wisconsin Bar in May 2012, and serves as one of four staff attorneys.

FFRF Co-Presidents

ALGandDan2017

DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio and Freethought Matters (TV). A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by FFRF. Other books include Godless (Ulysses Press, 2008), The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2011), Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, Pitchstone Press (2015), GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling Publications, 2016), and Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion. A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in FFRF’s musical CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," "Beware of Dogma,” and “Adrift on a Star." He joined FFRF's staff in 1987, serving as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004, speaks widely and has engaged in more than 100 debates about religion.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection, a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980–1985. She first joined the FFRF staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. In the late 1970s, her student protest ended commencement prayers at the UW-Madison. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Dan and Annie Laurie have appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight.

Photo: Ingrid Laas

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See Dan's online writings »

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FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

ANNE NICOL GAYLOR was a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and worked as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she did substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism

FFRF Legal

REBECCA S. MARKERT is the Legal Director for FFRF. She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island, and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008 as the first in-house staff attorney. Prior to joining FFRF, she worked for former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold both in his legislative office in Washington, D.C., and in his 2004 campaign office.

She handles a First Amendment caseload that includes matters involving religion in the public schools, religious symbols on public property, and electioneering by churches. She has served as co-counsel in federal lawsuits across the country and routinely assists FFRF’s cooperating attorneys in litigation. She’s drafted amicus briefs filed in many federal appellate courts including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rebecca is admitted to practice in Wisconsin, and before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. District Courts for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Rebecca is also a member of the Western District of Wisconsin Bar Association, Dane County Bar Association and the James E. Doyle American Inn of Court. She also serves as the President of the Legal Association for Women in Madison, Wisconsin.

Photo by Chris Line. 

PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's Senior Litigation Counsel, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2005). He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in 2010.

Patrick oversees litigation for FFRF, including important First Amendment cases involving religion in schools, religious displays, and free speech violations. Patrick is admitted to practice in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the U.S. Supreme Court, and many federal district and circuit courts around the country.

Patrick has served as the Chair of the Civil Rights & Liberties Section of the State Bar of Wisconsin (2020). He has helped plan and present educational programs for lawyers on civil rights issues.

Photo by Chris Line. 

ANDREW L. SEIDEL is a constitutional attorney, the Director of Strategic Response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and an author. Andrew graduated cum laude from Tulane University ('04) with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School ('09), where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a perfect GPA ('11) and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award.

His first book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American hits shelves in May 2019. Renowned constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky has described it as "a beautifully written book" that "explodes a frequently expressed myth: that the United States was created as a Christian nation." Publisher's Weekly said that Andrew "provides a fervent takedown of Christian Nationalism in his furious debut. ... his well-conceived arguments will spark conversations for those willing to listen." Susan Jacoby (Freethinkers; The Age of American Unreason; and The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought) wrote the foreword and Dan Barker penned a preface. When not fighting for the First Amendment, Andrew writes for ThinkProgress, Religion News Service, Rewire News and elsewhere. Andrew joined FFRF as a constitutional consultant on Halloween, 2011.

Photo by Chris Line. 

 

ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.

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MARK DANN joined Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) on May 20, 2019, as our first full-time director of governmental affairs. Dann previously worked as the director of governmental affairs for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). He has also served as the federal affairs director at Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life advocacy group, and as a democracy development consultant with the National Democratic Institute in Moldova and Iraq. And he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Crimea before it was invaded by Russia.

Mark will help raise the national profile of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Washington, D.C., where he is based.

Mark lives in Washington, DC with his husband Sultan Shakir. They have a Chihuahua/Jack Russell Terrier who as a finalist in this year’s Running of the Chihuahua's in DC.

SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.

Photo by Chris Line. 

RYAN JAYNE received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. After graduating, Ryan taught piano and chess lessons while working as a financial advisor until 2012, when he began law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. In law school he focused on intellectual property and animal law, serving as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September, 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding. Ryan became an FFRF staff attorney in September, 2017.

Photo by Chris Line. 

MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF in some capacity since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a staff attorney.

Photo by Chris Line. 

CHRISTOPHER LINE received his B.S. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2012. He began working for FFRF in 2015 as a legal intern while attending law school at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly after receiving his Juris Doctor in 2017, Chris began working full-time for FFRF as a Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow. He became an FFRF staff attorney in September 2019. He is an accomplished photographer whose work has appeared in The Humanist magazine, the Progressive, and FFRF’s own Freethought Today. His work can even be found on display in Freethought Hall.

Photo by Chris Line. 

GRETA MARTENS graduated from Hamline University with a B.A. in history and a minor in Legal Studies in 2018. After graduating she moved to Madison and worked as an archivist at a pharmaceutical company. She has been a legal assistant since November 2019. Outside of work, she enjoys reading books and comics, hiking, and going to the farmer’s market.

JOSEPH MCDONALD joins FFRF as the Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow after graduating with with Juris Doctor and Master of Public Health from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2020). Prior to joining FFRF, he was a public school teacher and school principal from 2014-2016. Upon returning for graduate school, he acted as a health policy analyst for the Population Health Institute from 2016-2018. Both during and after law school, he taught Public Education and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Education Leadership and Policy Analysis. Joseph is thrilled to join the FFRF team and enforce separation of church and state and educate the public.

STEPHANIE DYER joined FFRF as the Intake Legal Assistant in November 2020. Stephanie graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in August 2020 with a B.A. in political science and legal studies, and a certificate in criminal justice. She is a Madison native, growing up on the Northside. Outside of work, she likes to travel and spend time outdoors hiking and kayaking.

BARBARA ALVAREZ is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing. She is from Madison, Wis., and attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on a Ph.D. in library and information sciences with a minor in gender and women’s studies. Alvarez was a major winner in last year’s FFRF essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle.

CHARIS HOARD, FFRF's first governmental affairs intern (2021 spring semester). graduated from Bowling Green State University with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Psychology & Law in August 2020, and is currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at Bowling Green State University.

FFRF Editorial Staff

PJ SLINGER is editor of Freethought Today. A Green Bay native, he has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, web editor and photo editor in newspapers in Marshall (Minn.), Mankato (Minn.) and Madison (Wis). Prior to coming to FFRF in 2015, he worked for 15 years at The Capital Times in Madison. He has a wife and three kids.

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AMITABH PAL is the Communications Director of FFRF. Prior to joining in February 2016, he was the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine for more than a decade. He was also the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive that sends out op-eds through the Tribune Wire Service to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries. Pal has appeared on C-SPAN and BBC and television and radio stations all over the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in school and college textbooks in the United States and Australia. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master's in Political Science from North Carolina State University.

Photo by Chris Line. 

ROGER DALEIDEN is the Graphic Designer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He grew up in Wausau, Wis.  He has been living in Madison since 1987. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986 (Fine Art), and the received his Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. Roger has taught Art and Design courses for UW-Madison and also for Madison College. He has worked as a Graphic Designer for catalog companies, most recently Full Compass Systems, and as well as for newspapers, including The Capital Times. Some of his other interests include bicycling through our beautiful Southern Wisconsin landscapes, paddling down the lower Wisconsin River, sailing on our lakes and skiing at the local ski areas.

Photo by Chris Line. 

JAKE SWENSON started as FFRF’s first graphic designer in 2015. He was born in Rockford, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He enjoys music, cycling, photography, traveling, and coffee.

Photo by Chris Line. 

LAURYN SEERING is the Communications Manager and supports a wide range of communications functions, including: website content curation, distributing materials to members and media, and managing FFRF's social media platforms. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout with a B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies with a minor in Journalism. She enjoys learning new languages, reading, biking, and creating art at coffee shops.

Photo by Chris Line. 

BILL DUNN is the editor emeritus of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.

BAILEY NACHREINER-MACKESEY is the Editorial Assistant at FFRF. Born and bred right here in Madison, she graduated from UW-Madison in 2017 with majors in Journalism and Mass Communication and Political Science and a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies. Outside of FFRF, she can be found volunteering for Madison’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS), catching up on her ever-growing stack of feminist reads, or slingin’ top notch espresso drinks as a specialty coffee barista.

Photo by Chris Line. 

FFRF Administrative Staff

LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, both as a staff member and volunteer leader, including having served as board president of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives and the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Lisa is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.

Photo by Chris Line. 

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

Photo by Chris Line. 

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

Photo by Chris Line. 

LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF.  She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.  She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years.  Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself.  Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia.  In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.

Photo by Chris Line. 

KRISTINA DALEIDEN is FFRF's Programs Manager. She a Wisconsin native and life-long freethinker, and received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida and a Post-Baccalaureate certificate in Paralegal Studies from Madison College in 2010. She has worked for law firms focused on employment and labor law, and worked as an office coordinator at a local small business prior to joining FFRF. Kristina is an avid follower of politics and enjoys long protest marches on the square, historical fiction and post-modern poetry. Her hobbies include writing to her representatives, yoga, badgering her family and trying to persuade her cats to get off the kitchen counters.

Photo by Chris Line. 

ASTORIA GOLDSBY is the Store Manager and in charge of processing orders. She is a Madison native who attended Madison Area Technical Collage (MATC). In 2006 she attained a Associate's Degree in Liberal Arts. Astoria joined FFRF in 2019, and has 11+ years in customer service. She loves spending time with her partner and dog, playing board games, and wine tasting. 

Photo by Chris Line. 

FFRF Specialty Staff

BRUCE A. JOHNSON has been a broadcasting professional for over 35 years. He has worked in Russia, Africa, Europe, Mexico and all across the USA.  Projects he has photographed, edited and/or composed music for have been awarded many Wisconsin Broadcasters, Milwaukee Press Club and both regional and national Emmy Awards. He is a 30-year resident of the East Side of Madison, and is married with two daughters.

Photo by Chris Line. 

JAMES PHETTEPLACE is the Director of IT for FFRF. Prior to joining in January 2018, James was the Director of IT for Willy Street Co-op for more than a decade, and served as a Project Manager for major expansion efforts. He was also an information specialist, programmer and consultant for Community Care Systems, Inc. from 1995 to 2003. James is also a Qualified Administrator of the IDI (Intercultural Developmental Inventory), and is dedicated to promoting inclusion, diversity and equity in the workplace. James is a poet and musician and has performed in the Madison area for over 20 years.

Photo by Chris Line. 

Executive Board of Directors

View DAN BARKER's profile above. 

MIKE CERMAK (Director) lives in rural Pennsylvania with his family and owns several small businesses. He first joined FFRF while in college, after having read “Losing Faith in Faith,” and is passionate about state-church separation. Mike is a private pilot, electric car owner and “evangelist,” and enjoys technology of all kinds.

View ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR's profile above. 

Photo by Chris Line. 

STEPHEN HIRTLE (Chair) is a professor in the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Pittsburgh Freethought Community, blogger with the Steel City Skeptics, faculty liaison for the Secular Alliance at Pitt and hosted a CFI Institute on “Secularism on Campus.” He has been a guest on Freethought Radio and has assisted FFRF in fighting a nativity display at the Ellwood City Municipal Building, a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley High School in New Kensington, and the Year of the Bible resolution passed by the Pennsylvania House.

TODD PEISSIG (Director) grew up in central Wisconsin and still lives there today. He attended the University of Wisconsin Pharmacy School, graduating with a B.S. in Pharmacy in 1989. He has worked as a retail community pharmacist with the Kmart Corporation for 27 years and is currently the pharmacy manager overseeing 5 technicians. Traveling extensively both domestically and worldwide is a great passion of his, as is fighting the battle of religious overreach in our country. He also is an activist fighting for LGBT rights. Todd volunteers a full day for FFRF every six-eight weeks, as well as at FFRF conventions.

JIM ZERWICK (Director) attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joined the Navy in 1968, studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute, and served as a communications tech in the Mediterranean area until late 1971. After discharge, he and a buddy toured Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He earned a Master’s in Library Science at UW-Madison, worked for several years at the Michigan State University Science Library, and became the engineering librarian at the University of Virginia. There he became hooked on flying ultralight aircraft. Returning to Wisconsin, he spent the following 29 years working as a property manager and assisting his parents as they approached the end of their lives. His mother, Rose Zerwick, who died as a “happy heathen” at 95 in 2013, was a second-generation atheist. Among Jim’s claims to fame is being part of the backup chorus singing Dan Barker’s “The Stay Away Pope Polka” for FFRF. He has been on the Board, initially as treasurer and now as a director at large, for 10 years. He is married to a retired high school teacher who has two grown children and a granddaughter. His three siblings and their spouses “all share a healthy skepticism of religion.”

CHERYL KOLBE (Secretary) retired from Portland Community College in 2004 as Student Systems Support Manager where she was responsible for implementing the software for Enrollment Services. She is passionate about the mission of FFRF and in 2013 she started a local chapter in Portland, Oregon and continues as chapter President.  She is a volunteer naturalist for Nature Conservancy and takes advantage of frequent opportunities to usher for performances in Portland. In her free time, she is an avid hiker, cross-country skier, and kayaker. Her two daughters and two granddaughters are a constant source of pleasure.

SUE KOCHER is President and a founding member of Triangle Freethought Society in North Carolina. She works at a large software company by day, and she occupies her off-hours with passions which include: vegetable gardening, cooking, working as a professional dog trainer, and of course, activism. Sue believes that the separation of church and state is essential for a true democracy, and that the replacement of supernatural beliefs with reason is essential for the survival of Homo sapiens. And for being worthy of that name.

STEVE SALEMSON (Treasurer) worked in scholarly publishing for nearly two decades, first as business manager of the Duke University Press and then as associate director of the University of Wisconsin Press. In previous lives, he was a professional musician and a French translator and interpreter. He has an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University and a B.A. in Comparative Linguistics from Queens College in New York, and degrees in French horn and music pedagogy from the École Normale de Musique de Paris. He and his wife, translator Joan Wallace, love living in Madison. Steve enjoys biking, international folkdancing, doing crossword puzzles, and being a grandfather. In addition to serving on the board of the FFRF, he sits on the boards of the Midwest Folk Dance Association and the National Mustard Museum, and thus is involved with both nonprofits and non-prophets.

DAVID TAMAYO (Director) is co-founder and president of Hispanic American Freethinkers in 2010, which is the first and only national Latino 501(c)(3) educational organization of its kind. He was Vice President of the Reason Rally 2016, former host of the TV Show “Road to Reason — A Skeptic’s Guide to the 21st Century,” founding Board Director of Camp Quest — Chesapeake, and host of Contrapuntos Podcast. David is the Chief Information Officer for DCS Corporation, a large aerospace engineering company in Washington, D.C. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from George Washington University, and a master’s in Management in Information Technology from University of Virginia. David joined the FFRF Executive Board as a director at large in Fall 2020.

FFRF Honorary Board

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.

ffrf honorary board 2020

The FFRF Honorary Board includes a. Ed Asner, b. Jeremiah Camara, c. Sean B. Carroll, d. Jerry Coyne, e. Richard Dawkins, f. Daniel C. Dennett, g. Ernie Harburg, h. Jennifer Michael Hecht, i. Susan Jacoby, j. Robin Morgan, k. Mike Newdow, l. Katha Pollitt, m. Steven Pinker, n. Ron Reagan, o. Robert Sapolsky, p. Edward Sorel, q. Geoffrey R. Stone and r. Julia Sweeney. 

“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

  • Ed Asner, movie and stage actor, TV ("Lou Grant") legend, winner of seven acting Emmy Awards, comedian and dramatist, has been a trade union and political activist, and two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. He voiced Ralph in the beloved film, "Up," and portrayed Santa in "Elf."
  • Jeremiah Camara is filmmaker of "Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America" (2018), "Contradiction: A Question of Faith" (2013), and other films, and author of the books Holy Lockdown: Does the Church Limit Black Progress? and The New Doubting Thomas: The Bible, Black Folks & Blind Belief. He's also creator the widely-watched YouTube video series "Slave Sermons."
  • Sean B. Carroll, professor of molecular biology, genetics and medical genetics act the University of Wisconsin, is author of 'Brave Genius', 'Remarkable Creatures', 'The Making of the Fittest' and 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful.'
  • Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
  • Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
  • Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
  • Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
  • Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
  • Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
  • Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
  • Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
  • Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
  • Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
  • Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
  • Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
  • Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, joined the faculty in 1973, after clerking for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. He later served as dean of the Law School (1987-1994) and provost of the University of Chicago (1994-2002). Stone is the author of many books on constitutional law, including Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (2017).
  • Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”

In Memoriam 

1honoraryboardmemoriam

  • Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, was author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, described himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”

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