On Separation of Church and State

Original date unknown

(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 Americans’ 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 America’s 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 they’d want their kids to marry.

I’m 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 haven’t 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 they’ll be able to stop it from going too far, or in a direction with which they don’t agree; but more likely they haven’t thought that far ahead. They haven’t really experienced enough hate and denigration to see what’s coming.

But I have. While it isn’t 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 atheists.”

Somehow, separating 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?

It’s true that a lot of people felt that holding graduation in a church didn’t hurt anybody so they didn’t 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. It’s 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 conscience.

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 isn’t just for the religious; its membership includes people of many faiths and those of no faith. That makes it an easy target.

Bill O’Reilly 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 Bay’s 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.

It’s 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.

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