Government free from religion is best by Dan Barker

These are the remarks FFRF Co-President Dan Barker made to the Religion News Association convention on Sept. 7 in Nashville, Tenn. FFRF was a co-sponsor of the event.

Dan Barker

I see that Pat Boone is registered for this conference. I accompanied Pat Boone on the piano once, back in the early ’70s at a huge Christian rally in Phoenix. At the time, I was an associate pastor in a California church, leading music worship and preaching. I am certain Pat Boone would never have imagined that that young man at the piano would go on to become the co-president of the largest association of freethinkers in the country, or that he would work with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola to co-found The Clergy Project, which helps ministers, priests, rabbis and imams to leave the pulpit after they have abandoned belief in the supernatural. I call it “Save a Preacher.”

After that rally with Pat Boone, I went on to pastor in two more churches. I was a missionary to Mexico, a cross-country evangelist, and a Christian songwriter with Manna Music, Word Music, and Gospel Light Publications, for whom I wrote vacation bible school musicals. In fact, I am still receiving royalties for some of those songs.

In 1983, after 19 years of preaching, I lost faith in faith. I threw out the bathwater and discovered there is no baby there.

Beginnings of FFRF

FFRF came into existence in the mid-’70s, initially as a result of feminism. Anne Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, had been working for years for birth control, abortion rights and women’s equality. During her activism, she noticed that the main organized opposition to women’s rights was religion. The church was in league with the government, putting the brakes on progress.
So in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, Anne and her college-age daughter, Annie Laurie, formed a local group in Madison, Wis., working from their dining room table. After hundreds of people joined the group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation became a national educational nonprofit in 1978.

FFRF has two purposes: 1) to keep state and church separate, and 2) to educate the public about the views of nontheists. Not only are we people who are personally free from religion, but we also think the First Amendment mandates that our government should be free from religion.

I met Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 1984. Annie Laurie and I were married in 1987, and in 2004, she and I were elected co-presidents of FFRF.
Today, with almost 30,000 members, FFRF has a staff of 25, including nine full-time attorneys. In the last two years alone, we have won eight lawsuits, not to mention stopping hundreds of state/church violations every year without going to court, simply by writing letters to government and school officials.

Complaints come to us

Contrary to what you may have read, we are not roaming the country looking for violations. We don’t have to. The complaints come to us — thousands every year — usually from nonbelievers or people in a religious minority who are subjected to unwanted governmental religious intrusion.

We are not fighting religious freedom. We don’t complain about nativity scenes in people’s front yards or the Ten Commandments at a Christian school. We don’t climb church steeples to remove crosses that are visible for miles.

We only sue the government. There is a difference between free speech and government speech. If the government promotes any religion, that creates an “out group.” The First Amendment, which prohibits any governmental action “respecting an establishment of religion” — was written precisely to protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority,” as John Adams and James Madison put it.

Not just an ‘out group’

I’m sure everyone in this room knows that the fastest-growing religious identification in the country is nonreligion. Currently, about a fourth of the nation is nonreligious, and if we look at younger people, at Millennials, one-third do not identify with religion. This is clearly not an “out group.” Our nonbelief is just as precious to us as religious belief is to church-goers.

Contrary to what you might hear, we atheists and agnostics are not “wallowing in despair,” leading sad, empty lives. We simply don’t see any good evidence or hear any good arguments for a god.

But more important, we don’t see any need for a god. In this country, there are tens of millions of good people — and around the world, it is hundreds of millions — who lead meaningful, moral, joyful, productive, hopeful, loving and charitable lives without religion. Nonbelievers are songwriters and authors. We are in the police force, the fire department and the military. We are educators and entertainers, scientists and scholars, actors and artists, reformers and revolutionaries, doctors and dancers, nurses and Nobel Prize winners, filmmakers and philosophers.

We have an annual “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” contest. In light of the Greece v. Galloway decision that allows prayer at city council meetings as long as atheists are also welcome, we encourage nonbelievers to deliver a secular invocation at governmental events that include prayer. Each year, the winner is flown to our annual convention to deliver their secular invocation to us, in person.

Current lawsuits

And that touches on one of our current federal lawsuits. Although the Supreme Court and local governments recognize that atheists can participate in solemnizing a public meeting, the U.S. House of Representatives does not. The chaplain of the House, Father Patrick Conroy, has rejected the request of Rep. Mark Pocan to invite me to deliver a secular invocation before Congress. After putting up many ad hoc roadblocks — which he has not done with other guest chaplains, and which I actually passed — Conroy finally said that the “prayers” before Congress must address a “higher power.” In the draft of my invocation, which I sent to him, I point out that in the United States, there is no power higher than “We, the people.”

As an officer of our secular government, Conroy’s denial violates the Constitution, which declares there shall be “no religious test” for public office.

We are also suing President Trump over the executive order he signed on the National Day of Prayer, assuring religious leaders — after promising to “repeal the Johnson Amendment” — that they are now free to politick from the pulpit. As you may know, in the government’s motion to dismiss our lawsuit, it admits that Trump got it wrong. His executive order does nothing, changes nothing, and actually upholds the Johnson Amendment, which most religious organizations say they like. In any event, we think all nonprofits should be treated equally by the IRS.

Which is why we are also challenging the unfair IRS code that allows “ministers of the gospel” to exclude their housing expenses from income, lowering their tax liability. When I was a minister working for a church, a religious nonprofit, I got a nice tax break. But now that I work for FFRF, a secular nonprofit, I no longer get that advantage. The government should not be picking sides.

Don’t stereotype atheists

When writing about nonreligion, be careful that you do not unwittingly stereotype atheists. We sometimes see headlines such as “Atheists outraged by city prayer” or “Nonbelievers furious at nativity scene,” portraying us as a bunch of angry thin-skinned malcontents whose feelings are so easily hurt. In reality, we are defending a precious American principle. When Trinity Lutheran Church sued the state of Missouri over its refusal to pay for playground equipment, did the headlines scream, “Lutherans outraged over state denial!”?

When you are looking for balance, be sure that it goes both ways. I once flew to Seattle to be a guest on a TV show to talk about atheism, and when I got to the set, I discovered that not only was the host unsympathetic, but there was also a minister, priest, and rabbi — no joke — on the stage with me, all of whom were very talkative, crowding me down to only a minute or two to make my case.

When that same show does a story about religion, do they bend over backwards to invite an atheist or secular humanist — even just one? — for “balance”? A couple of years ago, Annie Laurie went on a Fox News show to talk about one of our lawsuits, and found that she was on with three long-winded theocrats — Bill Donohue, Todd Starnes and a priest, not to mention the hostile host Sean Hannity — leaving her time to squeeze in only a quick sentence or two. That was unfair and unbalanced.

But, that is free speech in the public sphere. In the public square, however, a secular government that is free from religion is our best hope for a world with less violence and more understanding.

Freedom From Religion Foundation