The Ingratitude of American Theocrats

When America’s founders ratified the Constitution, they created something that arguably had never existed in the world before: a republic where freedom of religion was explicitly enshrined in the charter, where toleration wasn’t just the whim of a benevolent ruler but the immutable law of the land. As George Washington wrote in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This was a radical break with history. At the time America was founded, all the great powers of Europe had state-supported churches and monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, and religious wars and persecution were the order of the day: Catholics persecuting Protestants, Protestants persecuting Catholics, and both Catholics and Protestants persecuting those within their own sects who strayed from established dogma. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition was still executing heretics at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

In Great Britain during the Elizabethan era, the houses of prominent Roman Catholic families were known for having secret rooms, called “priest holes” (see also), where Catholic priests could be hidden away at a moment’s notice when inquisitors came calling. Can you imagine what living in that society must have been like? Can you imagine living in a country where your freedom of belief hung by a thread, where the whim of a king made the difference between being grudgingly tolerated and an enemy of the state, and where literally at any moment you might have to abandon everything and go into hiding for your life – and that this happened so often that people planned for it?

Although America has seen (and practiced) its share of religious persecution, we’ve never had horrors like these. Instead, our founding document offered all comers a wonderful bargain: the freedom to live in peace, practice your beliefs as you see fit, even preach them to others. And in return we asked only, as President Washington said, that believers of all kinds be good citizens and obey the law of the land. We modern Americans have gotten used to this freedom, but that shouldn’t blind us to how truly unprecedented it was, nor how liberal and generous it is to theists of every denomination.

But for members of the modern Christian right, it isn’t enough. It’s not enough for them that they have the right to practice their beliefs as they see fit, free of government interference. It’s not enough for them that they have the unlimited freedom to fundraise, pray and preach as much as they like, in whatever media outlets they choose to publish. It’s not even enough for them that they can stud the landscape with churches and staff and maintain them tax-free.

No, these dominionist believers want more than freedom: they want a special, privileged place in the laws of our country. They want the government to obey them, to issue official proclamations reminding everyone of their superiority, and to underwrite their evangelism with tax money from nonbelievers. They want their dogmas and only their dogmas to be taught in public school science classes, enshrined on courthouse lawns, and used as the basis to decide who should be allowed to marry, divorce, be born and die. In short, they want to be what our founders specifically sought to prevent: a state-established church, an arm of the government, with special rights and privileges granted to members and nonbelievers relegated to second-class citizens.

What selfishness! What ingratitude! All American believers, Christian or not, were given a priceless gift by the founders, and these ones throw it on the ground and spit on it. They don’t want to be one religion among many; they want special privileges and special recognition. They think that freedom is worthless if it’s granted to people they dislike – like a spoiled child who wants a toy because no one in his class has it, and then throws a temper tantrum when other kids get them because he’s not the only one anymore. It’s telling that these fundamentalists apparently can’t just practice their religion on their own – they need constant hand-holding and head-patting from the government to stroke their egos and reassure them that they’re better and specialer than everyone else. It’s a clear sign of insecurity.

Benjamin Franklin had their number over two hundred years ago:

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Think of this the next time some obnoxious theocrat is on the news, arguing that it’s unfair to him if his sect doesn’t get special rights. These people want us to think of them as proud, pious defenders of America’s Christian heritage (a claim which is, needless to say, utterly false). Instead, we should think of them as spoiled and petulant children, ungratefully rejecting the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood, all because they want to be treated as if they were better than everyone else. Keep that image in your head, and it may help you put the theocrats’ demands in their proper context.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    “Instead, we should think of them as spoiled and petulant children, ungratefully rejecting the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood, all because they want to be treated as if they were better than everyone else.”

    Way ahead of ya. I’ve thought that of them for seven years.

  • keddaw

    No, these dominionist believers want more than freedom: they want a special, privileged place in the laws of our country.

    And yet these are among the people who are so vociferously against Sharia law in the US.

    Are they so blinded by the shining light of the Holy Spirit that they cannot see their hypocrisy?

  • L.Long

    As a member of the SCA we study the ages from 1000 to 1600 fairly close and I can guarantee that no sane USA person would ever want to go there to live. Its fun in games and make-believe but the reality is very horrible for the common person. And that is only considering the religious and political aspects.
    There are basically 20 items that make this country great…
    Jefferson, Franklin, and the others that made the constitution and bill of rights.
    The main problem with many parts of the world is that they cannot find even 3 such people.

  • Ruana

    Official separation of church and state is something I really admire about the US. Over here we’re working on pushing back the Church of England’s privileges – and oh, how the whining doth flow whenever we take a step forward!

  • Scotlyn

    Yes, I’ve always thought that the US constitution must rank as one of the wonders of the modern world!

    Do they still teach “civics” in schools?

  • Katie M

    They teach American Government . . . I guess that’s close enough.

    I took it in 11th grade, just 5-6 years ago. The book was from 1990 :/

  • Uruk

    Excellent post! You said it so well!

  • the chaplain

    Are they so blinded by the shining light of the Holy Spirit that they cannot see their hypocrisy?

    Yes, they are. They believe their holy writ is right, and it’s the only one that can be right, so Islam and Sharia law have to be wrong. We atheists look at the Bible and the Quran and see two pieces of literature that belong in the same category. Christians and Muslims look at them and see them as belonging to two vastly different categories: one is inspired or directly revealed, the other is mistaken at best, or, at worst, Satan’s tool to lead the unwary astray from the True Religion. Therefore, in their minds, their elitism is not hypocritical, it’s justified.

    They don’t want to be one religion among many; they want special privileges and special recognition.

    This follows from the presumption that their religion is the only right one; all others are mistaken, at best…. They don’t perceive themselves as demanding special privileges and recognition, they perceive themselves as justifiably demanding, on behalf of their god, the respect and recognition that their god, and his chosen people, deserve. It’s not special if it’s a just dessert.

    Having written all that disgusting drivel, I’ll close by saying that I like this post.

  • pendens proditor

    Secularism really is one of the best things that ever happened to religion. Amazing that the religious right have been able to turn it into a dirty word, but I guess ignorance of history is par for the course in those circles.

  • MS Quixote

    Amen, Ebon. And thanks for the Franklin quote…

    the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood,

    Lots of Native American blood, at that…

  • Demonhype

    I, too, have thought of them as spoiled children for years now. But your analogy of the spoiled child who throws a tantrum because he is no longer the only one in the class who owns a wonderful toy is much more apt than the one I was using–something about a spoiled child throwing a tantrum because he is told that he can’t keep the entire candy jar for himself and the candy must be doled out in equal portions to all the children. Yours is better because freedom isn’t really a finite source, like a candy pile, that can be doled out, and just as the other kids having the same toy doesn’t make the spoiled child have any less, minorities obtaining equal rights does nothing to deprive the religious of their own rights.

    Well, in reality land anyway. In Religious Nutbar land, your rights are directly proportional and correlated to whether you believe in God, what God you believe in and how you believe, and alternate belief or disbelief is tantamount to legally signing away your human value. Yet they would say that this is actually freedom.

    Kind of like in That Seventies Show, where Kitty lets the kids choose whether or not to go to church, and then when they choose not to go she drags them to church and when they complain that she said they had a right to choose, she says “well, when you want to go to church, then it will be your choice”. Basically, you have a right to choose, but the only valid choice is to choose Their Way, and if you choose anything else you should be forced to pretend to the Right Choice and have it forced down your throat until you finally Submit to Providence. You have a choice between agreeing with me or pretending to agree with me until you agree with me (because they just know that dissenters are just going through a silly phase, after all). There are no other choices.

    These kinds of religious people are very dangerous people.

  • Jeff

    Basically, you have a right to choose, but the only valid choice is to choose Their Way…

    This is absolutely correct.

    Great post. They ARE spoiled, dysfunctional adult children. For decades after the Scopes trial, they were resigned to remaining in the margins of society, until Nixon developed the idea of the “Southern Strategy”, which took off in the late seventies. This attitude of entitlement is a result of their empowerment over the past thirty years, beginning with Reagan, coupled with the rise of the Dominionist/Reconstructionist movement – a toxic cocktail.

  • Scotlyn

    Ironically, if they were ever to get their way, the war would immediately start in earnest, in order to decide the pressing issue of WHICH theocrats get their version of theocracy. It is always easy to live in peace with people who are just like you. Secular society is the only one which makes it possible to live in peace with those who are different.

  • Robert Tobin

    The brain dead Zombies of the FundaMENTAList Christian Right are POISONING the United Christian States of America with Religion and turning the country into a 3rd. World Country. It must be stopped before it is too late.


  • Keith

    Eloquently and nicely put, as usual!

  • kennypo65

    Adam, I don’t usually do this, but I don’t think “specialer” is a word.

  • Ebonmuse

    I realize that, but it seems like a word. :) I thought it sounded appropriate to describe the petulant attitude of entitlement displayed by the religious right.

  • Mathew Wilder
  • Ahab

    Ain’t that the truth! I’m so sick of Christian fundamentalists complaining about how “oppressed” they are in this country, when in reality they have a great deal of religious freedom to celebrate. Dominionists won’t be satisfied until they’ve transformed society into a Christian theocracy — and we would do well to remember that in our dealings with them.

    Scotlyn — Good observation, but I doubt many dominionists have considered it.

  • Scotlyn

    Ahab, you’re right. But when it comes down to it, two rationalists can resolve their differences, or at least come to acknowledge the reasonableness of one another’s interpretations, by referring to the relevant evidence. But two religionists have no external reference point to help resolve their differences – ok there’s the holy book – but maybe your book is a different one from my book. It can only end in two ways – accommodation (ie secularism) or bloodshed.

  • marvin nubwaxer

    now if we could just attain freedom from religion.