Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
by Bob Lane
This month we discussed a document from the Center for Inquiry in Washington DC. The document, titled Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism.
I have added my name to the list of those in agreement with the declaration and feel honored to be listed among all the distinguished names on the list. I urge you to read the document and if you agree, add can your name as well.
The declaration is concise and gives some sad statistics about the willingness of many Americans to believe in intelligent design or creationism and to reject evolution. It also points to the sorry amount of scientific illiteracy. The document also lays out some steps deemed necessary to rectify these problems. Again, I urge you to read the declaration as it is well worth the time.
One Nation, Under WHOM?
Thank you and good evening. When Julie Mayhew called me a few weeks ago to inquire about the possibility of my speaking to this group on this date, we talked a little bit about possible topics and finally decided that, since I taught recent U.S. history at the University of Utah for 36 years and my research field is really political history, I ought to be able to work out something on the subject of Religion in American Politics. So I brainstormed the topic for a couple of days and found the history of religion in our political arena interesting.
And then, the following Saturday morning, I turned on the telly and landed on C-SPAN 2 and there was an author named Chris Hedges talking about his recent book entitled American Fascists. How many of you are familiar with that volume? I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I was not, but as I listened to Mr. Hedges describe the increasing intrusion of radical right-wing Christians into American politics, I was fascinated by his “take” on the subject and quickly concluded this program was probably a gift from God. That’s a joke.
As it turns out, Hedges himself is an interesting guy. He was a reporter for the New York Times for many years, specializing in covering the world’s hot-spots (including Iraq) and won himself a Pulitzer Prize. He is by no means your typical critic of conservative Christianity, having been born the son of a Presbyterian minister–but his father was definitely a mainline Christian with a social conscience, taking part in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, for example. Chris Hedges can still quote chapter and verse from the Good Book when he needs to. Beyond that, he tells a story drawn from the time he was earning a degree at Harvard Divinity School and sitting in the Ethics class of Professor James Luther Adams. Adams, then maybe eighty years of age, was warning his pupils about the stated goal of Pat Robertson and other televangelists to create a new “political religion” that would eventually take control “of all institutions, including mainstream denominations and the government.”
As Hedges says, it was hard to take such “fantastic rhetoric seriously,” but Adams had been in Germany in 1935-36 working with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an underground anti-Nazi church and saw ominous parallels between the pro-Nazi “German Christian Church” and what was going on with the religious Right in this country. One other interesting footnote: James Luther Adams, if the name is not familiar to you, was widely regarded as the pre-eminent Unitarian theologian of the 20th century.
Well, I’ll get back to Chris Hedges a little later. When I first started thinking about this topic, my first impulse was (as you might suppose) to approach it historically –at least historically through the last several decades. Thus came the title, “One Nation, Under Who?” –derived from the decision of the new Republican Congress in 1953 to add the words “One Nation, Under God,” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Some have traced that action to the fact that, by 1953, we were thoroughly involved in the Cold War (and just finishing a hot war in Korea) and the bi-polar world view of the U.S. as defender of the “Free World” (which included, of course, some pretty unsavory right-wing dictatorships)–defender of the “Free World” against what was often described as “godless, atheistic Communism.” So maybe if we stuck God into the Pledge of Allegiance it would give us an edge.
Having said that, I don’t remember the early 1950s as a time when religion played an especially active role in American politics. The historian Jon Wiener has reminded us that President Eisenhower once said: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, ” but then added “and I don’t care what that faith is.” Ike’s opponent in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections was Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson who was, of all things, a Unitarian. And I don’t think for most Americans that was a big deal–although that might have been because they had no idea what Unitarians were about. As a liability in the ’52 campaign, I think Stevenson’s Unitarianism was far less damaging than the fact that he was a divorcee at a time when divorce was still deeply troubling to many Americans. It took Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to legitimize divorce in the public mind–but maybe we cut him some slack because he was a movie actor and we all know about the mating habits of people in Hollywood.
Some of you might have begun your historical survey of religion in politics with the 1960 presidential race and specifically the candidacy of John F. Kennedy. In a sense, it wasn’t a new issue in 1960. There were still plenty of people around who remembered the abuse Al Smith had received in 1928 as the first Catholic nominated by one of the two major parties with predictions that, if he were elected, the Pope would move into the White House the next day. And while Smith would almost certainly have lost to Herbert Hoover anyway, even if he’d been Protestant, it is clear that many voters in the previously Democratic “Solid South” either stayed home or actually voted Republican in 1928.
There have been suggestions recently that Mitt Romney ought to try to dispose of the “religious issue” the way JFK did in his talk to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in mid-September 1960. That was about as clear a proclamation of why religious affiliation ought to be irrelevant in a system such as ours as you can imagine. Kennedy said, in part, that there were real issues they ought to be talking about but since he was talking to an assemblage of Protestant ministers he thought it was an appropriate time to address the false issue of his Catholicism. In his moat telling passages, he said:
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic)how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly of indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist”
“. . . I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, both the lay and the pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past..
[And then, finally:] “If I should lose [this election] on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40,000,000 Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.”
I really hadn’t intended to quote that speech at such great length–but there’s something compelling these days about the prose of a truly literate President.
The myth is that Kennedy’s forthright confrontation of the religious issue put it to rest.
It did pretty much remove the topic from open discussion, but if you study the election returns from 1960 you will find Republican margins significantly increased in the southern “Bible Belt.” And, just as interesting, you will find some critical areas in the North (Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and, perhaps critically, Illinois, as well as Jack Kennedy’s Massachusetts)–all with large Catholic populations, going for the Democratic candidate. So religion was a factor after all.
Okay, back to the historical survey. Religion is one of the last things I think of when I think of Lyndon Johnson or his Presidency. I think he may have been raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but the matter is so unimportant that Robert Dallek, in his magisterial Johnson biography, basically doesn’t mention it. And LBJ was followed by that pious Quaker, Richard Nixon. Nixon took the pacifism of his faith so seriously that he intensified the bombing of North Vietnam and authorized a new incursion into Cambodia.
Perhaps the spirit had moved him to do it.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, is another President who might have been photographed attending church services with Betty from time to time but never made a big deal out of his religion. But his successor, Jimmy Carter, was a self-proclaimed “born-again” Christian and a Sunday School teacher in his Baptist church in Plains, Georgia, even though he was a Democrat. And, as the 1976 campaign wore on, we found out that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, was even more . . . what word should I use? . . . devout, just a few paces this side of the snake-handlers. Clearly Jimmy Carter’s identification with fundamentalist Christianity didn’t hurt him with millions of voters, especially in the South, and I’m sure Republican strategists noticed.
So, with some irony, it seems to me it is the Reagan years, the early and middle 1980s, that constitute a turning point in the subject of religion and American politics. These are the years in which we begin to hear more and more about the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority,” and the Rev. Pat Robertson and his “700 Club” as well as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and all the rest. The Reagan people would have been blind not to see the political possibilities in playing to these folks and their constituents. So a part of the Reagan program, in addition to building up the defense establishment, taking a more aggressive line toward the Soviet Union, and pursuing a conservative economic agenda, was to pay lip service to efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, restore prayer to the public schools, and generally bring God back into American life (as though he–or she–had ever been away). The fact that the President had no realistic chance of delivering on his anti-abortion, pro-school prayer promises given the positions taken by the Supreme Court and the difficulties in passing amendments to the U.S. Constitution, didn’t seem to lessen the political advantage he enjoyed with the Religious Right.
I think Reagan’s successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, was never entirely comfortable with these new political bedfellows. He, after all, was the son of an old-line New England family, Episcopalian if I recall correctly, and it must have seemed a little tacky to wear your religion on your sleeve the way the evangelicals did. Whatever problem Bush 41 (as he is now sometimes called) had with the Fundamentalists must have been exacerbated when the Democrats nominated another southern Baptist to oppose him in 1992: Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Now I have no idea how sincere Bill Clinton was or is in his religious beliefs. If he was shown from time to time to have feet of clay, to be susceptible to various human weaknesses, you have to remember there is considerable room in evangelical Christianity for sin, repentance, and even forgiveness. What I think is indisputable is that Bill Clinton was (and remains) one of the most genuinely gifted politicians this country has seen in the last century. I’m not saying he was a man of great vision or great courage or necessarily possessed some of the other leadership traits we might wish for. But he’s highly intelligent and connects with people in person and on the stump in a way that few candidates have. I think he truly likes people (not just White House interns) and a lot of politicians don’t.
The fact that Clinton was so attractive to so many voters made him anathema to Republicans who had come to think of the Presidency as rightfully theirs. And in that sense Clinton may have played a role in the further politicization of the Religious Right. Which brings us chronologically to George W. Bush, the man Garrison Keillor refers to these days as simply “the current occupant.” Unlike his father, this President Bush is apparently a serious born-again Christian and there have been reports that he talks to the Lord upon occasion before making policy decisions. (I thought talking to Dick Cheney was scary enough.)
Beyond that, it is virtually certain he could not have been elected in 2000 (if he was elected in 2000) without the energetic support of Christian evangelicals and the same was probably true in 2004.
It seems to me it is President Bush’s vocal support for a long list of the Religious Right’s political causes (not just an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning abortion, but another banning same-sex marriages), as well as his administration’s advocacy of “faith-based initiatives,” i.e., providing federal tax money to help fund religiously-connected projects and programs, that have injected religion into American government and politics to a degree hardly imaginable forty years ago. So where does that leave us?
Frankly, I think it leaves us in danger of suffering a basic change in the way this country has understood the relationship between government and religion for the last 220 years since the U.S. Constitution was written. I’m not even talking about the First Amendment–yet. I’m referring to the main body of the Constitution, specifically Article VI, Section 3, which declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That was later complemented by the language of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” It was that mind-set that caused Thomas Jefferson, after he had become President in 1801, to write a letter in response to one he had received from the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut–a letter complaining that the Connecticut state legislature was treating freedom of worship as merely a “favor granted” by the state.
In reply, Jefferson wrote in part: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” [Emphasis mine.] But old habits die hard, and as religious conservatives still point out, the nation’s currency bears the motto “In God We Trust,” and both houses of Congress have chaplains to begin each day’s session with a prayer.
By the 1980s and ’90s, “God talk” permeated the political arena and even liberal Democrats seemed compelled to end every speech with “God bless you all and God bless America!”
(That, by the way, has always struck me as a curious phrase. Just what does it mean? Is it simply an expression of hope that the Almighty will bless America? Or is it a command, suggesting that he really ought to? Or is it rather a clumsy attempt to re-state the old idea that this country is already peculiarly blessed by Providence, chosen by God to serve as a “City upon a Hill”? Either way, it comes across as arrogant and, if there is a God, presumptuous.]
But politicians are in the business of winning votes, and the real question is why such language now plays a prominent role in our national rhetoric. That brings me back to Chris Hedges and American Fascists. For starters, do not be put off by the title. Chris Hedges says he was actually surprised that it did not draw more criticism because there are obviously some significant differences between Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and the United States in the early 21st century. But he is serious about the Religious Right being embarked on a conscious and absolutely serious effort to “create a global, Christian empire.” Whereas James Luther Adams’s warnings a quarter of a century ago were hard to take seriously, Hedges notes that in the intervening period.
“the powerbrokers in the Christian Right have moved from the fringes of society to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Christian fundamentalists now hold a majority of seats in 36 percent of all Republican Party state committees, or 18 of 50 states, along with large minorities in 81 percent of the rest of the states. Forty-five Senators and 186 members of the House of Representatives earned between an 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups–The Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and Family Resource Council. Tom Coburn, the new senator from Oklahoma [and what I am quoting here Hedges wrote shortly after the 2004 elections] had included in his campaign to end abortion: a call to impose the death penalty on doctors that carry out abortions once the ban goes into place. Another new senator, John Thune, believes in Creationism. Jim DeMint, the new senator elected from South Carolina, wants to ban single mothers from teaching in schools. The Election Day exit polls found that 22 percent of voters said that the most important issue in the campaign had been ‘moral values.”
Hedges identifies the “Reconstructionist movement, founded in 1973 by a man named Rousas Rushdooney, as “the intellectual foundation for the most politically active element within the Christian Right.” Rushdowney’s three-volume, 1600-page work Institutes of Biblical Law, argues “that American society should be governed according to the Biblical precepts in the Ten Commandments,” and that “the elect, like Adam and Noah, were given dominion over the earth by God and must subdue the earth, along with all non-believers, so the Messiah could return.”
As Hedges describes it, Rushdooney’s ideal Christian society would be “harsh, unforgiving and violent. Offenses such as adultery, witchcraft, blasphemy, and homosexuality, merited the death penalty. The world was to be subdued and ruled by a Christian United States.” And, for good measure, Rushdooney felt the figure of six million Jews killed in the Holocaust was inflated. Since I’d never heard of Mr. Rushdooney before, I was puzzled as to his importance in the story. But Chris Hedges tells us that the man’s theories, called “Dominionism,” came to dominate the politically active wing of the Christian Right. The religious utterances from political leaders such as George Bush, Tom Delay, Pat Robertson and Zell Miller are only understandable in light of Rushdooney and Dominionism.”
To the extent that the threat is real, who do you suppose the prime targets of the Dominionists are? Hedges quotes the popular Christian Right theologian Francis Schaeffer as saying that “Secular Humanists are the greatest threat to Christianity the world has ever known.” Take that!
Well, there’s a lot more to it than that: Addiction to the image of Jesus as a Warrior, a strong strain of macho-masculinity derived from the fear that liberals and homosexuals have emasculated real men. What better issue, then, than a campaign for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages? Perhaps most frightening is the psychological profile of the extreme leaders on the Religious Right. They see the world as “binary” (Hedges’ word), divided into Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Us and Them, with no gray areas in between. He makes a clear distinction between these people and an earlier generation of evangelicals (typified by Billy Graham) who urged their followers to separate themselves from the evils of secular values, government, and commerce so that they might lead truly moral lives. The Robertsons and Dobsons and Falwells want to control that secular world.
Hedges also sees them as possessing no theological legitimacy since they absolutely ignore both Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and also what medieval theologians called the “Doctrine of the Two Swords,” Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees that we should “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”–which really comes down to a separation of Church and State. Nowhere in the preachings of these Christian televangelists will you find Jesus’ message of love, compassion, and forgiveness . . . or the man who surrounded himself with society’s outcasts and the downtrodden.
Yet according to Hedges’ view, “all debates with the Christian Right are useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School. These naïve attempts to reach out to a movement bent on our destruction, to prove to them that we too have ‘values,’ would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. They hate us. They hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution.”
In painting such a graphic picture, Chris Hedges caught my attention. But I have to believe that millions of Americans, conservative American Christians, voted for George W. Bush in 2004 without endorsing or even being aware of this blueprint for world domination. So the more important question is, Why has a substantial constituency been ready to listen to the preachings of the Religious Right? My own judgment is that a combination of factors have come together to create anxiety, even fear among those in a certain stratum of American society. I don’t think it is elitist to suggest that many of the folks I’m talking about are not particularly well-educated or sophisticated thinkers. And in many cases that’s not their fault. They are fearful of a world that has become far more complex than anything they were trained to handle–and a world much closer to them and more threatening than ever before. (Read that as “9-11” and Iraq and globalization and formerly-forbidden subjects aired on television during prime time.)
Now here come the Falwells and the Robertsons and the Dobsons with easy answers and appeals to place their faith in God and his anointed spokesmen. And the appeal is great enough to make millions of these people, who have also often been abused by rapacious capitalism, vote against their own economic interests. But if the system works the way it ought to, shouldn’t we be able to turn away these authoritarian impulses with reason and compassion, appealing to the best instincts of those they have led astray?
Chris Hedges, and James Luther Adams before him, were not optimistic. They had (and
have) little hope that leadership in the battle will come from the liberal, secular, and rather small
intellectual elite that should be our first line of defense. To quote Hedges, Adams’s “critique of the prominent research universities, along with the media, was . . . withering. These institutions, self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with government and corporations, given enough of the pie to be complacent, were unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age. They had no stomach for a battle that might cost them their prestige and comfort. He told me that if the Nazis took over America ’60 percent of the Harvard faculty would begin their lectures with the Nazi salute” . . . [and] “He had watched academics at the University of Heidelberg, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger, raise their arms stiffly to students before class.”
I think I take that as a challenge–not just a challenge to college professors but a challenge to all thinking people and all of us who continue to cherish the belief that reason can ultimately control unbridled emotion, reality will ultimately prevail over fantasy and fear-mongering, and humanity has a potential for good and kindness as well as evil and hatred. That is the bedrock assumption on which this country has operated ever since the time of Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment and if the assumption is flawed we truly are in deep trouble. It will not be easy.
It will require sustained effort and courage and understanding and a willingness to reach out to those in our society and in the world who need our friendship and our own perceptions ofTruth..
But I have already rambled on too long. What do you think?
RECOMMENDED READING ON THIS TOPIC:
Balmer, Randall, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books, 2006).
Danforth, Senator John, Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (Viking, 2006).
Hedges, Chris, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2007).
Kuo, David, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Free Press, 2006).
Lynn, Barry W., Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom (Random House, 2006).
Suarez, Ray, The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America (Harper Collins, 2006).
The Board would like to than Professor David Keller for his thoughtful and aggressive defense of freethinking. Also thanks to Mark Hausman and Christ Presbyterian Church for giving us the opportunity to sponsor this public discourse. Also, thanks to Professor Deen Chatterjee for an excellent job of moderating and public presentation of the debate.
A YouTube video of the entire debate can be viewed here.
Discussion Group Changes
We are going to change this meeting from the first Thursday of the month to the fourth Thursday. This change will take place in September, after our summer break.
Because of health issues, Richard Layton will no longer head the Discussion Group. We wish to thank him for his years of leading this forum and providing excellent reports for our journal. We wish him well and hope that his health improves soon.
Board member Dr. Craig Wilkinson will be heading the Discussion Group when we resume in September. The topic will be The True Meaning of the Establishment Clause, a position paper published by the Center for Inquiry.
April was a busy month, with the usual events coupled with the debate, “Is God Necessary for Ethics?” which Humanists of Utah co-sponsored with Christ Presbyterian Church. It was an interesting experiment and I think it went very well. It was a way to get together with people of differing viewpoints about an important subject and debate and discuss it in a civil manner.
I don’t think that either side gained any “converts” and I fear that too much familiarity may breed some contempt, or perhaps some “overheated arguments,” when two groups with such vastly differing viewpoints get together.
However, the board feels that we should continue to co-sponsor debates and forums on subjects of interest or importance, with other groups such as the University of Utah Department of Philosophy.
I want to thank Mark Hausam of Christ Presbyterian Church for suggesting and arranging the many details of the debate and for serving on behalf of Christ Presbyterian Church. Thanks also to Dr. David Keller of Utah Valley State College for representing H of U. Both gentlemen served as articulate and thoughtful spokespersons for the various “sides” they represent. A special thank you must go to Dr. Deen Chatterjee, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, for moderating the debate in such a professional and considerate manner.
Once again, Board members Bob and Julie Mayhew sprung into action and worked very hard to secure excellent selections for the literature table, as well as a new Humanists of Utah banner for the debate, all of which we will use for future events. Thank you, Bob and Julie.
I would like to remind everyone again that we will be suspending our regular meetings in June and July. We will resume in August, with a picnic on the second Thursday. Watch for announcements about time and place as the date approaches. Finally, make a note to check out our ad in the May Catalyst.