On Separation of Church and State
(2006--A speech given at some kind of symposium on something...I
remember that the ACLU guy said during a panel discussion that
'all-inclusive' prayers were okay before government meetings and I
wanted to explain that there was no such thing. Once someone starts
beseeching a deity of any kind, you've excluded the atheists. But I
didn't say anything. Sometimes you're just tired, you know? Anyway,
this speech isn't snarked. It doesn't need any snark.)
On April 7 of this
year, in an opinion column in The Tallahassee Democrat on Americansí
lack of knowledge of the First Amendment, Bill Berlow said: "I'm
eager for all Americans to know more about our history and our
liberties. But I'm desperate for more of us to demand that they be
protected when they're under fire - as they are today. Even if we're
fairly well informed about our rights, the most important part of
our constitutional compact is our willingness to hold them."
The American Mosaic
Project, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota Department
of Sociology, discovered that atheists are Americaís most distrusted
minority. According to the majority of people surveyed, it was not
people of other faiths or homosexuals, but atheists who are the last
people they felt shared their vision of America, and the last people
theyíd want their kids to marry.
Iím no sociologist,
but I can think of several reasons why atheists are the last
acceptable prejudice in this country. One of the reasons is
separation of church and state.
The majority in
this country is Christian. And for most of them, there is little
harm in allowing a bit of their god and their religion into
government. As a favored majority, despite a troubling persecution
complex, they havenít enough true experience with oppression to
imagine the ills of opening the door just a crack to let in the
Christian God. Perhaps they imagine theyíll be able to stop it from
going too far, or in a direction with which they donít agree; but
more likely they havenít thought that far ahead. They havenít really
experienced enough hate and denigration to see whatís coming.
But I have. While
it isnít exactly true, it seems that it is always a few brave
atheists who are willing to stand up and fight for complete and
strict separation of religion and government. It seems that only the
Newdows and the
Johnsons and the
Gaylors are willing to vocalize the
danger and injustice of letting God into government.
The ACLU has been
branded un-American, anti-Christian, and atheistic. And when Barry
Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State speaks,
people question his faith and condemn him for "siding with the
religion and government has been turned into endorsing atheism and
banishing God from the public square. Somehow, the very ideal that
is responsible for the flourishing of Christianity in this country
has been deemed the enemy of the Christian faith. Attempts to secure
the secular government promised in our Constitution are now being
attacked as a war on Christianity.
In January, the
Space Coast Progressive Alliance honored the Musgrove and Narciso
families for their courage in fighting against holding public school
graduations in a local mega-church. Along with feelings of pride and
gratitude at being so honored, I had feelings of sadness and loss.
Why does it take courage to stand up for religious liberty? Was it
because we were a Buddhist and an atheist? Or was it because it was
only a Buddhist and an atheist who stood up?
Itís true that a
lot of people felt that holding graduation in a church didnít hurt
anybody so they didnít see the case as one of religious liberty.
From that we can reason that a majority of Americans do not
understand religious liberty and have trouble empathizing with a
minority faith viewpoint.
If atheists are the
most distrusted minority in this country then we are the last people
you want standing up alone and fighting for your religious freedom.
Itís time the majority in this country woke up to the dangers of
mixing religion and government and stood with us.
Atheists have three
major groups in this country devoted to fighting for separation of
church and state, one of which has a lobbyist in Congress. Atheists
have hundreds of local groups fighting for their rights of
The religious have
one group: Americans United for Separation of Church and State run
by Reverend Barry Lynn of United Church of Christ. The problem with
AU is that it isnít just for the religious; its membership includes
people of many faiths and those of no faith. That makes it an easy
Bill OíReilly called Barry Lynn a "paranoid crazy."
Jerry Falwell called him "about as reverend as an oak tree."
Ann Coulter calls
Lynn a "mail-order minister." [*citation link no longer valid]
Barry Lynn and the
religious membership of Americans United are fighting an uphill
battle because the majority in this country do not understand
religious freedom. If you do not understand why graduating public
school students in a church, on an altar, in front of an enormous
cross, is a violation of freedom of conscience, then you do not
understand religious liberty. If you do not understand why posting
"God bless America" on the
City of Palm Bayís website, along with a
picture of the American flag with a cross lit up within it*, is a
violation of separation of church and state, then you do not
understand separation of church and state. If you can not understand
why it a violation of my rights to include the words "Under God" in
the Pledge of Allegiance, to replace our motto, E Pluribus Unum,
with "In God we Trust" and put it on our currency, and to post the
Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments on government property for any
reason, then you do not understand your own rights.
Until you can look
at the world from a minority viewpoint and imagine your government
supporting, encouraging, and acknowledging a god or religion other
than your own, you will never experience the empathy required to
grasp the idea of religious freedom.
Itís just too easy,
when you are one of the majority, to turn away from the rights of
conscience of those with whom you do not agree, and swell with
righteous satisfaction when patriotism and your religion walk hand
in hand. Just remember, by the time it is your viewpoint that is
deemed inconsequential, the atheists may not be here to help you.
*The City of Palm
Bay has since redone its website and as far as I can tell, those
violations no longer stand.