Why Do Elks Clubs Have A Religious Test by Brian Bolton (December 2000)

Brian Bolton, a longtime Foundation member from Arkansas who recently became a Life Member, wrote this letter to the Northwest Arkansas Times, which published it on March 23, 2000.

The Times then published the breathtakingly bigoted response (see sidebar) from another reader, revealing what freethinkers are up against in the Arkansas Bible Belt.

In his Sunday column a few weeks ago Mike Masterson explained that to qualify for membership in the local Elks Club Lodge the applicant must profess a belief in God.

This constitutes discrimination against unbelievers and would seem to contradict the Elks Club’s other membership requirement, which is support for basic American principles, one of which is surely respect for different philosophical viewpoints.

Because the Elks Club Lodge is a private organization, the Elks can establish any entrance standards that they prefer. Many private clubs have even more restrictive requirements, such as Christians only, whites only, and men only.

But other private organizations do not have any religious tests for membership. A good example is Toastmasters International, the world’s largest organization devoted to the improvement of speech communication, with more than 8,400 clubs.

There is a long history of intolerance of unbelievers in Western society, beginning with prominent Greeks and extending to the present day. The term “unbeliever” subsumes skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and nontheists.

¥ Plato thought that unbelievers are a danger to society and should be put to death. He was referring to disbelievers in the pagan gods of Greek antiquity.

¥ Jesus (John 15:5-8) and Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9) taught that unbelievers would be burned, either in this life or an afterlife or both.

¥ St. Thomas Aquinas, the eminent Catholic theologian of the 13th century, advocated death for unbelievers, because they corrupt the faith.

¥ John Calvin, the Protestant theologian of the Reformation, actually did execute dozens of unbelievers.

¥ George Bush (the former president) asserted that unbelievers should not be considered either citizens or patriots.

¥ Jay Cole, Jr. announced that without God and his son Jesus, there is only tragedy, poverty and brutal criminal activity.

¥ Mike Masterson stated that he doesn’t care to spend much time around anyone who does not believe in God.

By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 14 million unbelievers in the United States. This number includes some of the most productive Americans. For example, a recent survey of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that fewer than ten percent believe in a personal god.

Twelve well-known Americans who were unbelievers are: Isaac Asimov, Andrew Carnegie, Clarence Darrow, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, H.L. Mencken, Carl Sagan, Margaret Sanger, James Smithson, Gloria Steinem and Mark Twain.

Why would the Elks–a group of dedicated citizens widely recognized for their community service–want to exclude a segment of the American population on the basis of a religious test? The Elks should welcome all applicants who subscribe to their social and philanthropic mission.

“We Do Not Want People Such as You”

To Brian Bolton, whoever you are. From what seat of supremacy do you write? The simple fact is that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by men of principle, men who believed in God. If you do not, that’s your problem; we do not need or want people such as you. Go your way, form your own assembly, associate with your peers.

Meanwhile, the Elks have important missions to fulfill, tasks that God approves of and which we are proud to undertake.

Poor fellow, you must be at wit’s end to look at our new dollar coin and see the inscription “In God We Trust.” the same words that appear on all our legal tender. Is this America’s Waterloo or yours?

Jack Harder


Freedom From Religion Foundation