I don’t make it my mission to slap down every loudmouth religious-right crackpot on the internet. Really, I don’t. If I wanted to make it my mission, I could do nothing else, but it wouldn’t accomplish anything and it wouldn’t make for a very interesting site.
However, the other day, this giant, flaming meteor of stupidity landed in my inbox, and it was just too tempting not to have a go. The author of this benighted epistle is Michael Medved, nationally syndicated right-wing radio host. In it, he applies his talents to the issue of why atheists are unfit to serve as president of the United States of America.
Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.
The “Church of America”? Good grief. Does Medved really think a vital part of the President’s job description is to issue mushy ecumenical proclamations reassuring voters that God approves of us? I must have missed that line in Article II. Somehow, I think the nation could soldier on if the President didn’t come out of the White House every so often to give us all a theistic pat on the head. The President is the President, not the Pope of America. His job is to faithfully execute the laws. That’s all. I can assure Medved that those Americans who wish to go on believing have more than ample opportunity to find like-minded clergy members elsewhere.
For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation–-the Indians in Massachusetts?
Oh, the horrors that would ensue if a president refused to issue a religious proclamation at Thanksgiving! Good thing we never had a president who dared such an impious act!
What? We did?
Who was he, some kind of liberal?
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it… every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
Oh, yeah: it was the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words “under God”? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.
I have a third alternative: why not say the Pledge as it was originally written, by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, before a meddling Congress inserted the words “under God” in the 1950s to give themselves a talking point about how we were superior to those evil, godless commies?
Medved unintentionally puts his finger on a reason why the Pledge should be restored. It’s quite true that the President should be able to participate in the patriotic rituals that unite us as a people. That’s why the current, religionized Pledge is so unfortunate – because it divides us, and makes a large number of Americans reluctant to participate in this civic institution without being made to violate their own consciences or feel like outsiders. And that’s why it should be fixed, so that all Americans, religious or not, can participate. Medved’s solution is to preserve that bigotry and keep the atheists out; I would rather get rid of the divisive language so that atheists can enter fully into the fold of American citizenship.
Next, Medved says, the “United States remains a profoundly, uniquely religious society” and should have a leader whose beliefs reflect that. Yet at the same time, he says, a candidate like Mitt Romney or Joe Lieberman would still be qualified:
There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups.
Uh, no. The most recent major survey done on this issue, last month’s Pew poll, found that self-declared atheists and agnostics account for about 4% of the population. That’s 12 million people. The “secular unaffiliated”, very likely atheists in all but name, are another 6%. That’s 30 million people, not five. Perhaps five million people seems like a small enough minority for Medved to safely ignore, but 10% of the population is pushing it.
For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.
This is the old canard that atheism is somehow intrinsically disrespectful of the religious in the way that other religions are not. It’s hard to see how this claim can be sustained, though, because Mormonism and Judaism both deny fundamental tenets of Christianity: one rejects Jesus’ claim to be the messiah, while the other asserts that he was just one in a potentially infinite line of deified humans. These faiths already deny so many of each other’s major tenets: why does the one additional tenet denied by atheism make all the difference?
Finally, Medved asserts, only a religious president could win the war against “Islamo-Nazism” (yes, he actually calls it that; I cracked up laughing too).
Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.
Is Medved really saying that al-Qaeda would go away and leave us alone if only we prove to them that we hate atheists as much as they do?
I have a news flash for you, sir: Al-Qaeda devotes considerable time and effort to killing their fellow Muslims for practicing the “wrong” faith. Do you really think that electing a Christian of any denomination is going to appease them? And what about the Jews? You just said that a Jewish person could be qualified to be president. Would that choice ever satisfy the evil Islamo-Nazis? Or do you want to rethink your plan of selecting presidents based on whom our enemies hate the least?
In this context, an atheist president conforms to the most hostile anti-America stereotypes of Islamic fanatics and makes it that much harder to appeal to Muslim moderates whose cooperation (or at least neutrality) we very much need.
Uh-huh. Because presidents who call the war on terrorism a “crusade”, and presidential candidates whose chief religious advisers openly preach that we are in a divinely ordained “religious war” against Islam, are not going to inflame Muslim sentiment in any way. Mr. Medved, you seem oddly open to diplomacy for a member of the right, but I have to break it to you: if you think that’s how this fight is going to be won, then you’re backing the wrong side altogether.
In sum: Like nearly all members of the religious right, Michael Medved’s view of America is aggressively anti-historical, his idea of our enemies is an ignorant cartoon, and his beliefs about atheists are a load of smug tripe. His popularity shows the widespread and glaring lack of intellectual standards among the religious right. His opinions can be safely dismissed by people of intelligence and good sense.
There, I feel better. Sometimes you just need a little bit of catharsis. Now, on to more important subjects.