The Constitution Guarantees Freedom <i>From</i> Religion

Letter to Lieberman

U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman
c/o Gore 2000
601 Mainstream Dr
Nashville TN 37228
Fax (615)340-3295
Phone (615)340-2000

Re: Remarks at Fellowship Chapel, Detroit, Aug. 27, 2000

Dear Senator Lieberman:

You are wrong to claim "that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Our 22-year-old national organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is made up of Americans who are free from religion in their personal convictions and who work to keep the U.S. government free from religion, as required by the Constitution.

"Freedom of religion" is a meaningless concept without the tandem "freedom from religion." Can there be true freedom of religion without the freedom to dissent?

Your remarks imply that our country does not permit the freedom to reject religion, that nonbelievers are second-class citizens. This insensitivity toward our nation's atheists and agnostics is particularly unseemly in someone who himself is a member of a religious minority. The "unaffiliated" and nonchurch-going in our population far outnumber those of your faith. A recent major survey by Scripps Howard has found that one out of every nine Americans is nonreligious. Are you contending that 24 million Americans have no right to their views--views which by definition require being free from religion?

You claim that a belief in God is the basis of our nation. The "basis" for our nation is our U.S. Constitution. We are a nation ruled by law, derived not from a supernatural being, but from the consent of the governed: "We, the People."

Our founders explicitly crafted the first godless constitution in the world. It was a revolutionary act to adopt a secular constitution which did not claim a direct pipeline to a deity (by no coincidence, history's longest-lived constitution). How sad that a candidate today would feel the need to disassociate himself from the most remarkable political advance of humankind--the adoption of a secular government.

The U.S. founders were painfully aware of the persecutions practiced when religion is established by government. James Madison, the Constitution's primary architect, and Thomas Jefferson, the father of religious liberty, were both from the colony of Virginia, where citizens who did not accept the doctrine of the trinity could be deprived of all liberties, and clergymen could be jailed for preaching the wrong religion.

The founding fathers were aware that Quakers were persecuted in some colonies, Catholics, Baptists or Jews in others. By common law, heretics could be put to death. The gruesome witchhunts of the Salem of 300 years ago are a painful chapter in the colonial history of theocracy-run-amok.

There is no need to turn to the pages of history to see the compelling need to keep church and state separate. From the Trade Center bombing and the antiabortion terrorists in this country, to the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, we can see that fundamentalists seeking to force their views on others pose the world's greatest threats to liberty and democracy.

No one would force you to be free from religion in your personal convictions and private life. But if you call for a "constitutional place for faith" in public life, where is the corollary "place for freethought"? If you are going to preach at Americans, be prepared to spark profoundly divisive debate.

You assert that a belief in God is the basis of morality. You should be aware that many Americans believe that basing morality on an unproven deity is dangerous and misguided. As physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg pointed out a year ago in a dialog on religion with other scientists: "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things--that takes religion."

Millions of U.S. citizens agree with Prof. Weinberg. Many kind, law-abiding Americans believe morality is firmly terrestrial, predicated on the real, tangible consequences of our actions here on earth. They reject the idea of arbitrary rules issued from on high, and are insulted at the idea that they can only behave well if threatened with punishments or bribed with rewards in some speculative afterlife.

You lament: "I miss the days when faith was discussed in public and not the most intimate details of our personal lives." Please try to understand that for millions of Americans, faith belongs in that category, and is something so intimately personal that its constant public exposure is embarrassing. Having taxpaid officials continually preach and pray feels, to many of us, like the equivalent of being "flashed."

We uphold your right to worship, but not at public expense on public time. Good manners used to dictate that it was a social faux pas to talk religion in public. Is there anything more divisive than to inject highly personal religious beliefs into public campaigns and government? You are not running for rabbi, you are running for vice president of all the people, including those of us who have a constitutionally protected right to be free from religion.

We appreciate your passing reference to the wisdom of separating church and state. But in order to honor that constitutional principle, it is necessary to laud, not rap, the wonderful constitutional concept of freedom from religion.


Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.
PO Box 750
Madison WI 53701
(608) 256-8900

See the related story in the New York Times.

See also:

Is America A Christian Nation?
What They Said About Religion


The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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