Defending Secularism in the 2012 Presidential Election: We Have a Long Way to Go

This is an article by Ed Buckner and Michael Buckner. It appears in the 2nd/3rd Quarter 2012 issue of American Atheist Magazine. American Atheist is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the US and Chapters Indigo bookstore in Canada. You can subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

Note: Footnotes/citations were not included in this posting but are available in the print version.

American elections — all of them, at every level — are full of foolish blather, disgusting vitriol, and other less-than-uplifting talk, and religion is responsible for more than its fair share. American Atheists cannot, by law, endorse candidates or parties (we are a 501(c)(3) educational organization). Our members disagree, sometimes quite vigorously, on political matters unrelated to religion or Atheism, so we would not be so arrogant as to endorse any candidate, even if we could. With this article, we seek to reinforce your awareness that American secularism deserves and needs your active support in protecting it from leaders who do not recognize church/state separation.

Many presidential elections, at least all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s in 1800 and 1804, featured virulent attacks on candidates for being either insufficiently religious or too unorthodox. The 2012 campaign certainly is full of it — religion, that is. Barack Obama was steadily pummeled for even suggesting tolerance for religious diversity, and a significant portion of the electorate apparently accepts that he is of no faith or of one different from his firm declarations. Many Americans want political candidates to be deeply and predictably religious but simultaneously keep this faith private and not wear it on their sleeves.

In recent national election campaigns, including the current one, the Republicans appear to be working hard to be worthy of the nickname “God’s Own Party,” though, according to Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful, Democrats are now struggling to compete. Republicans in the last half of the nineteenth century were consistently the strongest proponents of secularism, often making declarations in favor of a quite strict separation of church and state, including urging Congress to tax church property — but that’s the subject for another article.

As the 2012 election got underway, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen summed up perhaps the core attack on secularism that the candidates have launched:

“The term ‘American exceptionalism’ has been invoked by Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and, of course, Sarah Palin… [after Cohen explained that the phrase has had different historical meanings]. Now, though, it is infused with religious meaning, which makes it impervious to analysis. Once you say God likes something, who can quibble?… The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern, nevertheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God… Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly, America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phrase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.”

Two years ago Rick Santorum, famous for his very conservative social views, told a meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference:

“The founding documents upon which our founding documents were based, and that’s the Judeo-Christian ethics, that is the base [this word order is not a transcription error]… We are a people of western civilization founded upon the Bible. We believe in the dignity of every human person. Why? Because we are created in the image of God. We believe in the ability, the collective ability of free and virtuous people to do more for our society than a benevolent authoritarian government in bestowing rights upon us.”

Santorum’s claim that “we” are “a civilization founded upon the Bible” could be construed as an indirect or distant connection to Christianity (mostly incorrect, even if that was all he meant), but he has consistently defended his political positions as being correct because they are biblical. In that same talk he accused Barack Obama of trying to turn America into Europe, which Santorum identified as “a completely secular country.” (Country, continent, region — who cares? — it’s one of those foreign places, damn it.)

Santorum’s campaign was “nominated” this year by Frank Bruni for having “perhaps the most ridiculous hyperbole in a political season thick with it.” Santorum’s hyperbole was aimed at not only Barack Obama, but also through him at secularism itself; it was a by-product of a lack of understanding and respect for this great American ideal.

Bruni noted:

“[Santorum] said that ‘the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith’ would lead the country to ‘the guillotine,’ an apparent assertion that for Obama, hope and change are the smokescreen, deficits and decapitation are the real agenda.”

Santorum was part of the bizarre attacks on Obama over the administration’s rulings requiring Catholic (and other) institutions to make health insurance that includes contraception available to employees. Santorum drew an inference that the guillotine (apparently a metaphor for the excesses of the godless French Revolution) was a little further along the road Obama was leading us down. Santorum’s remarks drew a variety of comments on their ahistorical and even un-American nature.

Not long after, Santorum explicitly attacked Obama for not being theologically correct, for failing to lead an administration based correctly on proper Christian and Biblical principles. And Santorum, in an apparent attempt to make every new declaration more bizarre than the previous one, attacked his fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy, for Kennedy’s famous 1960 defense of separation of church and state. Santorum said that such a commitment to separation “makes me throw up.” It seems clear that Santorum cannot grasp the possibility that secularism could be anything other than governmental promotion of Atheism — or at the very least he is convinced that conservative voters in Republican presidential primaries would be that ignorant.

Even Santorum’s wife, Karen, jumped into the fray regarding God, her husband, and the need for political leadership on behalf of religiosity. In February, she publicly attributed her husband’s successes to “God’s will” and declared that a key purpose of the campaign is “to make the culture a better culture, more pleasing to God.”

According to Andrew Sullivan, the attacks on Obama over contraception being part of required health insurance coverage seems to be entirely politically — not religiously — motivated. What’s more, they don’t even seem to be politically successful:

“So with this new compromise, Obama has actually increased religious freedom, not restricted it. All of which makes one wonder exactly how genuine the current outrage is — whether it is part and parcel of a political campaign against Obama rather than a defense of religious freedom.”

A biblically based government would be thoroughly unconstitutional, inimical to religious liberty, and profoundly un-American. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera credits John M. Barry, author of Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, with the idea that Santorum’s ideas on the right way to govern have roots in the 17th-century disputes between John Winthrop and Roger Williams and that the Santorum/Winthrop side lost that battle over 350 years ago.

Nonsense that is commonplace this year is similar to what Newt Gingrich wrote in a 2006 screed:

“There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular left’s relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.”

Gingrich neglected to tell anyone who the alleged “secular left” really is or what he meant by “driving God out” beyond an intelligent application of separation of church and state. But absurd as they are, declarations of that type are not politically ineffective. With at least a substantial swath of the American electorate, they ring “true” even with no reasonable metaphorical bell to create the sound.

When Herman Cain was still in the running, he insisted that “We don’t need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States. We need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution.” Cain then went on to attribute a number of phrases and ideas that are found only in the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution. At least he proved the wisdom thereby of his prescription.

Michele Bachmann is a clear advocate of politics that include extreme examples of claiming God is on her side. She has even asserted that in effect God has acted as her adviser on political questions. In April 2011, when asked in an Iowa forum about her longstanding activism opposing gay marriage, Bachmann referred to her actions in the Minnesota Senate in 2003:

“I heard the news [about a Massachusetts court decision supporting gay marriage] on my local Christian radio station in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I was devastated. And I took a walk and I just went to prayer and I said, ‘Lord, what would you have me do in the Minnesota State Senate?’ And just through prayer I knew that I was to introduce the Marriage Amendment in Minnesota.”

During the 2006 congressional campaign, she said:

“They’re teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I’m here to tell you it’s a myth — that’s not true… The only reason we’ve been a great nation — guess why? Because at our founding we established everything we did on the lordship of Christ.”

In Bachmann’s defense, she proved consistent even in defeat, describing her withdrawal from the 2012 presidential race (after she finished last among active candidates in the Iowa caucuses) as also part of “God’s plan.” (When Cain departed the race he seems not to have blamed or credited any gods.) Comments like these certainly suggest that a government led by a President Michele Bachmann would have been a serious threat to religious liberty.

While normally associated more with the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party, Congressman Ron Paul has had at least one embarrassing brush with Christian theocratic extremism in this campaign. His staff quickly pulled a web page touting the endorsement of Nebraska pastor Phillip Kayser after it turned out Kayser’s views include a belief in the modern enforcement of Old Testament laws, including not just the execution of murderers but in some cases the death penalty for unrepentant adulterers, apostates, blasphemers, homosexuals, and idolaters.

One might suppose the Libertarian attitude of laissez-faire would be at odds with the state-enforced piety of the religious right. However, the extreme views of some Libertarians against the federal government opens up the possibility of theocrats making common cause with their natural enemies.

These unlikely allies seem to be willing to champion “states’ rights” by effectively gutting the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly protects citizens from abuses by state and local authorities. Americans would then be abandoned to the tender mercies of local majorities (or activist minorities), as this strategy to build a theocracy is, in the beginning at least, imposed on the most susceptible parts of the country.

Romney, now clearly the 2012 GOP nominee, has been criticized and attacked by anti-Mormon Christians who are apparently acceptable to Republican “values voters.” One of these, Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, who spoke after Romney at an event last October, has gone so far as to declare the First Amendment “written by the founders to protect the free exercise of Christianity” (this is as good a place as any to admit that some people are quite likely to be wholly immune to the arguments and facts presented by secularists) and that Islam is not protected by the First Amendment.

Fischer went on to “generously” concede that “non-Christian religious traditions” ought to be given religious freedom as a “courtesy.” Unless we — er, that is, the real Christians — decide that some non-Christian religion such as Mormonism or Islam is dangerous. The fact that this would endow the US government with the power, the right, and the duty to define “Christianity” as well as “dangerous religion” seems not to have occurred to Fischer.

Romney has suffered, according to Frank Rich, from the strategy to hide his core out of fears that many voters — somewhere between a fifth and a fourth of the electorate — find Mormonism unacceptable:

“In the current campaign, Romney makes frequent reference to faith, God, and his fierce loyalty to ‘the same church.’ But whether in debates, or in the acres of material on his campaign website, or in a flyer pitched at religious voters in South Carolina, he never names what that faith or church is. In Romneyland, Mormonism is the religion that dare not speak its name.”

And, according to Rich, this means that we are prevented from getting to know the real Romney, the Romney who has devoted so much of his wealth and life to his church. Rich cited with approval Christopher Hitchens’ statement that “we are fully entitled” to ask Romney about “the role of his religion in influencing his political formation.” Rich insists that “that faith is the key to the Romney mystery.”

A follow-up to this issue was published by Frank Bruni. In a column titled “Mitt’s Muffled Soul,” Bruni suggests that Romney is “editing out the core of his identity. He’s muffling his soul.” Bruni also describes some of the reasons Romney might be avoiding discussing Mormonism, since his own great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, was a practicing polygamist who moved to Mexico to avoid the changes in the law and Mormon church rules regarding multiple wives.

In a television interview, Romney even tried to use God-talk during the campaign to deflect his political problems, real or imagined:

“You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. The American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.”

The syntax and logic are hard (impossible?) to follow in this, but it is clear that Romney expects Americans to avoid envying wealth (his or anyone else’s) because America is “one nation under God.”

Among the weirdest of bizarre Gingrich campaign statements on secularism has to be this one:

“I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is nine. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular Atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

According to a spokesperson, Gingrich had intended, when he said this, to include the word “or.” But even if he had done so, to perceive the two radically polar outcomes as alternatively likely results of our national “slipping” demonstrates no understanding at all of secularism. Whether one is considering Christianity or Islam, of whatever variety, a government in the name of either is fundamentally opposed to a secular one, and working to protect secularism is directly opposed to working to establish any religion.

He made another comment about seven months later that we name the most outrageously inaccurate historical comment of the campaign:

“A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all at the problems we have. Because we’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”

Incorrect and thoroughly misleading comments like that are among the reasons we must not let down our guard in defending secularism. It is clear that a basic Gingrich campaign strategy is to dare any opponent from either party to defend secularism. That dare has, unfortunately, not been accepted by any presidential candidate.

Before withdrawing from the race in January, Texas Governor Rick Perry turned out to be more than a Christian politician eager to show off his religious bona fides to the right wing of his party. An example of Perry’s determination to win fundamentalist Christians to his campaign, even if it required displaying either ignorance or dishonest pandering, occurred in New Hampshire not long after he announced his candidacy. Perry declared that “we teach both creationism and evolution” in Texas public schools. New York Times reporter Kurt Anderson noted that Perry’s claim was “an assertion that’s a fiction itself; last month the Texas Board of Education unanimously rejected creationist biology textbooks.”

In the Washington Post Michael Gerson summed up neatly that:

“[The] use of religion in politics is a source of cynicism. It should raise alarms when the views of the Almighty conveniently match our most urgent political needs. A faith that conforms exactly to the contours of a political ideology has lost its independence. Churches become clubs of the politically like-minded. Political dialogue suffers, since opponents are viewed as heretics.”

An example of the prevailing fearfulness of political leaders on all sides occurred during the lead-up to the primaries when Republicans led a successful effort to “reaffirm” the “In God We Trust” motto in November. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), the measure’s sponsor, claimed “Some public officials have stated incorrectly that there are different national mottoes. We heard the president make that mistake.”

Obama made the “mistake” in 2010 on a trip to Indonesia. He did say, “In the United States, our motto is E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One.” But he was explicitly tying our motto to that of Indonesia’s own national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Old Javanese for “Unity in Diversity.” Obama also said, “America is not, and never will be, at war with Islam. Instead, all of us must work together to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates, who have no claim to be leaders of any religion — certainly not a great, world religion like Islam.”

So this was not, alas, evidence of any desire on Obama’s part to get rid of the insulting McCarthyite “In God We Trust” as our national motto. It was just good public diplomacy — playing up a way in which the United States and a foreign country are alike. And E Pluribus Unum remains, as it has been since the earliest days of the republic, a de facto motto of the United States. It is on our coins and is a part of the Great Seal of the United States, which is featured on the back of the one-dollar bill.

Their nonbinding resolution passed the House 396-9 and did lead Obama to declare the whole process, correctly, as “political posturing.” But no leader of either party exhibited the political courage to suggest changing the anti-American motto.

President Obama undertook his own effort to wrap political and policy decisions in religious armor when he addressed the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and declared that his calls for higher taxes on the rich comported well with his Christianity. He even quoted the Bible, allegedly on the subject, noting that “For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ ”

Obama also said that what he champions “makes the economy stronger for everyone” and abides by God’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” At least one Republican, Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey, walked out in protest, declaring that he was angry that the president had used a prayer service for political purposes. And conservative political columnist and blogger Erick Erickson immediately and sharply criticized Obama for his religious/political entanglement and for allegedly choosing to “pervert the words of the Living God.” Conservative columnist Cal Thomas excoriated Obama over the event, even going so far as to claim that Obama conveyed an attitude that suggested he wanted government “to replace God.”

There is, of course, considerable hypocrisy in using religion to defend right-wing politics while becoming righteously upset by someone else using religion to defend left-wing politics. Obama was probably doing nothing more than trying to inoculate himself against the palpably unfair attacks by Republicans who claim Obama had “declared war” on the Catholic church or had committed “anti-religious” acts, as Gingrich declared a few days earlier.

As secular purists, we believe this type of rhetoric violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment and that it only encourages dishonest anti-secularists. A confident leader would not even attend the National Prayer Breakfast in any official capacity, much less use it as a vehicle for pandering to adherents of any religion.

Obama’s declaration in May that he personally favored gay marriage may have been completely sincere, completely a coldly calculated political move, or any combination of these and perhaps other factors. But it is quite clear that nearly all of the opposition to his comments has been either religiously based or, more likely, based on using religion for political gain.

No matter who wins in 2012, secularism will, we predict, still not get the defense it deserves and may yet suffer more than mere insults. Secularism is a key American contribution to the world — a real basis for pride in “American exceptionalism.” It deserves Atheists’ support at the polls via support for American Atheists and other fine national and local groups, and however else you can back it.

Ed Buckner, an American Atheists board member, was President of American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. His son, Michael, is Vice President of the Atlanta Freethought Society and a published writer.

Some portions of this article are adapted from In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty, to be published this fall by Prometheus Books.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Stev84

    Arnold Vinick for President:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulk3hDwxnmg&feature=player_detailpage#t=239s

    The entire scene is awesome

  • advancedatheist

    American Atheist is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the US and Chapters Indigo bookstore in Canada. 

    This goes to show how we have really trivialized “persecution” of atheists in the U.S., when we can openly buy our literature in the same stores every one else uses. Just the other day I picked up a copy of <

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      Persecution means far more than being at risk of physical injury. It also means having our rights violated… something that happens every day in the U.S. when prayers are offered up publicly or crosses and biblical versus are posted on government land.

      Just because there are atheists in other countries who have it far worse doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards being seen in a better light in our own country, and demanding that our country operate as the secular institution it was designed to be.

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

      “Dear Muslima” all over again.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    In my opinion, this is the single most important issue in the election. With secularization under attack in the U.S. by so many politicians, the courts remain the last line of defense. With religious extremists like Romney and Ryan in the White House, not only will the theocrats be energized, but there’s a real risk of adding one or more wingnuts to the Supreme Court… and just one more is all it would take to radically shift this country away from secularism and towards theocracy. That’s a very scary thought, and is why all people who value our secularism must vote for Obama… regardless of political position, regardless of opinions about how effective he has or has not been.

    • A3Kr0n

       While I agree with you that secularization is under attack in the U.S, I wouldn’t go so far as calling Paul Ryan a “religious extremist”. Mitt Romney perhaps, but Paul is just an ordinary Catholic who would probably prefer religion not even be brought up in an election. I’m disappointed that he decided to run as Romney’s vice president. Given the choice, I would rather see Ryan as president, and Romney looking through the dumpster behind Chik-Fil-A.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        If he’d prefer that religion not be brought up, he shouldn’t be talking about God on the stump.

        It doesn’t matter what he actually believes, it’s the wingnut mentality that he’s visibly supporting that defines him. And it defines him as an extremist.

        • Ken

          I truly believe that politicians will say whatever you want to hear to get elected — then do what they want afterwards.  Makes it hard to know who to vote for, but that is the way things have evolved.  I also think that when running, it is easy to promise anything (like Obama), then find that Gitmo, the economy and Afghanistan are tougher problems than seen from the outside — that’s just reality smacking one in the face.  It also appears that good ideas and intentions are not enough when dealing with intransigent and insane ideologues (Tea Party) who will not allow any compromises, even on their own agendas.  Until some system of checks and balances can be enforced on elected officials, money will always be God in politics, and we just get to pick which crook tells us what we want to hear.  I like the system some European Parliaments have better, where negotiations and compromises are necessary because the two-party system is not allowed to dominate the agenda.l  Minorities are truly represented with representatives, and can be influential in swinging decisions with their brokered vote — at least its a more honest form of compromise. 

      • Randomfactor

         I think the religion he’s extremist about is Randianism.  He’s denying it now, but he’d have to in order to be considered for the ticket.

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          Assuming that’s the way his political philosophy swings, I’d still avoid calling it a religion. Beliefs can be irrational and dogmatic without being religious. There’s no element of the supernatural in Rand’s philosophy, so it isn’t reasonable to treat it as a religion.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    My favorite Santorum quote states that the secular left is intolerant, and fears dissent, because dissent comes from reason, common sense, and divine revelation.

    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/645022-santorum-sacks-sinister-secularism Not sure if I should laugh or cry.

    Although I think I’m glad that the GOP did pick arguably the most secular candidate available.  Perhaps Huntsan, but we didn’t get a chance to know.  And I’m sure some would argue Ron Paul.  Maybe.  But at least they didn’t go with Santorum/Cain/Perry/Bachman.

    • 3lemenope

      I did attend a Paul event at the local campus in Rhode Island, and he did go out of his way to say he supported rights of conscience “for those of any God, and those with no God at all”. So he gets a few brownie points for being one of only two national politicians I can think of willing to acknowledge atheists’ existence and rights (much less talk about us in a non-derogatory way) and a few more for saying it while being a member of a party generally unfriendly to the sentiment.

      He also said some pretty crazy things. Frustrating guy, that Paul.

    • Vision_From_Afar

       I would honestly argue that Johnson might go farther than Huntsman would have, and certainly farther than Mitt seems capable of doing.

  • Randomfactor

    “a secular Atheist country, [or] potentially one dominated by radical
    Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an
    American.”

    Good news for Newtie, then.  Since both he and we would fight together to prevent the latter outcome, and since we atheists outnumber American Muslims already, then the best possible outcome–a secular country–is within reach!


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