I have seen some atheists decrying what they see as the religious government of the United States. Some have even gone so far as to label it a theocracy. It is not though. What such people fail to do is distinguish the government from the culture of the United States.
The Flavor of a Democracy
The government of the United States is most assuredly secular. However it is also equally assuredly a democracy and a strongly religious culture. These two points are important. They are important because all democracies take on the flavor of the dominant culture. It is inevitable. After all, a democracy reflects the will of the people – they elect officials, vote on laws, and are polled on what they believe and want and if elected officials desire to be re-elected such desires have to be considered. Further, elected officials are drawn from the culture which means that whatever is the predominant strain running through a culture and society then people who believe in that strain and think like that strain will get elected more frequently than those that do not.
This fact is highlighted by the recent Pew poll on the composition of our 2013 Congress.
“Members of Congress are often accused of being out of touch with average citizens, but an examination of the religious affiliations of U.S. senators and representatives shows that, on one very basic level, Congress looks much like the rest of the country. Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress – like the nation as a whole – is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago.”
While there is some variation in religious representation in Congress with that of American society, most notably among the nones, as a whole it fairly closely matches. Given all of this it would be surprising if our government did not have a religious flavor. It is made up of religious people and is reflective of American society at large.
However, our government having a religious flavor is not the same as it actually being religious. It is rather more like those fruit juice drinks with artificial flavoring but containing no real fruit juice.
A Secular Government
Let us start this section by noting that the United States Constitution is a starkly secular one. There is no reference to God or Christianity in it. The only religious reference are the ones telling the government to stay out of the individual’s religious beliefs – the no religious test for public office clause and the 1st amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Indeed, as an outline for the workings of government it is more secular than almost any other such document for any other government.
It is more secular than Denmark’s, “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and, as such, it shall be supported by the State.”
It is more secular than Germany’s, “”Conscious of their responsibility before God and man, … the German people, in the exercise of their constituent power, have adopted this Basic Law.”
It is more secular than Australia’s, “Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown … Be it therefore enacted … as follows:”
Much more secular than Ireland’s, “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, … do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.”
It is more secular than Switzerland’s, “In the name of Almighty God! The Swiss People and the Cantons … adopt the following Constitution:”
And the list goes on.
So, despite what some believe, both atheist and theist, the United States is a solidly secular government. One though set in a religious culture, in fact one of the most religious cultures in the industrialized nations.
So, how does the interplay of religious culture and secular government work out then.
Secular Government Meets Religious Culture
The United States secular government restricts how far legislation based solely on religion can go. It does so through several different methods.
First, the fact that our Congress represents the views of a great many diverse people means that the more radical religious acts die without even being voted on. Of those that do get voted on the majority will wind up never passing. And then it still has to be signed by the President.
Keep in mind that there are numerous voices clamoring to be heard during this whole process. This includes the secular and those who value church/state separation as well as the religious who wish to impose their views on all.
Even should such legislation (overtly religious) get passed there is still another check point – the judiciary system. Such laws can be challenged in court and the courts can and have overruled them.
Now, keep in mind that all of this is not an automatic process, nor is it one that happens instantaneously. It cannot be so due to the fact that the Constitution is a document that has to be interpreted and that men of good will can disagree on this; and that a democracy is inherently a messy and inefficient system of government. Also, the weeding out involves a process and the process, as all processes do, can and usually does take time.
To provide an example of what I mean, consider creationism. Every year numerous bills are proposed in the states and occasionally at the national level that would promote creationism. The vast majority never get beyond the proposal state. They either die in committee, or are not passed by the legislature, or are vetoed by the governors.
Of the few that do get enacted so far each and every one – every single one that has managed somehow to be passed – has been struck down by the courts.
Or consider the fate in Florida of Amendment 8. This proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution in 2012 that would have prohibited state government from discriminating (specifically in terms of financial aid) against religious organizations, including schools with religious affiliations. It needed 60% of the population to vote yes in order to pass. It didn’t even get half the votes, winding up with only 44.5%.
Even had it passed it would still have been successfully challenged in the courts.
I know that there are some religious trappings to our government. I would like to see them banished, however they are trappings and not substance.
The swearing of oath of office on the Bible is one such. However, keep in mind that there is nothing in the Constitution requiring this, nor does the Constitution require saying “So help me, God.” This is cultural only, and one that is changing. Today we have Muslims swearing in on the Qur’an, a Hindu who swore her oath on the Bhagavad Gita, and a “none” who swore on nothing at all. Here is a link to a very good article that provides a bit of background on this particular practice.
Some Comparisons and Their Meanings
All of the following information is from “Freedom of Thought 2012; A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, and the Nonreligious”
Several countries have hate crime laws that make it illegal to insult religions. These include Germany where the German magazine Titanic was prosecuted after their front page showed a crucified Jesus appearing to be receiving fellatio from a Catholic clerk and also a German businessman who printed “Koran” repeatedly on toilet paper who was initially sentenced to one year of prison and 300 hours of community service.
Other countries with such hate crime laws include the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. All of these countries have used these laws against those making strong statements against religious groups.
You will not find that here in the United States. It would be considered unconstitutional and a violation of free speech as well as religion in many cases.
Many countries also give preferential treatment to one religion over another. In Sweden Swedes can designate part of their income tax to go to their church or religious body, but secular Swedes have been denied the right to do this for the Humanist Association.
While I would like to do away with the tax exemption for churches in the United States it is at least applied to all religions and includes Humanist organizations. I will note that sometimes the atheist organizations receive a tax exemption on grounds other than religion, but it still is a tax exemption and is a level playing field as opposed to actively giving money to all religious organizations except secular ones.
Other countries that financially contribute to religions includes Ireland, the United Kingdom, Iceland which promotes Lutheranism, Norway which supports the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Switzerland which supports one of three traditional communities through church taxes and Canada in which six of the ten provinces provide partial or full funding to religious schools, usually Roman Catholic.
Yet despite all of this and more, the United States is the government considered the least secular and most religious. Why?
The difference here is culture. Were the United States to have a constitution like many of these other countries have then I would imagine we would be in danger of becoming a religious theocracy. However, I would argue that fact that our constitution is so secular has prevented and will continue to prevent this from ever occurring. The flip side is God, so to speak, help the citizens of those countries should their culture ever become dominated by conservative religious groups.
What Need to be Done in the U.S.
The government of the United States has a good secular foundation. It does not require any change in regards to this, only protection of its secular nature and skilled, consistent use of its laws and nature to continue to fight back against religious legislation.
What is needed instead though is a change in our culture. To my mind this involves focusing on three areas.
1) A PR effort to educate the religious public about atheists and atheism; that we are not evil and immoral people and can be trusted. This would make it easier for us to work together with theists in areas where we have common cause and also increase the odds that an atheist can be elected to public office.
2) Work to encourage the questioning of religious “truth” and ideas with the rationale that once such questioning begins some (although not nearly all) would become atheists. The others, although not becoming atheist would become more liberal and progressive and more willing to work with us for the common good. While this questioning might lead these theists to becoming even more religious it would be a religion that is more intelligent and rational.
While there is a need for the firebrands and hardliners in this, most such efforts to encourage questioning should be more low key and part of an on-going dialogue. Why?
Because such a low key approach will be the most effective. It also will not hurt our PR effort mentioned in #1 above, whereas the firebrand approach can create a backlash and be counterproductive to such efforts. Lastly, it is matter of human fairness and courtesy – theists are deserving of being treated with respect even if we disagree with them about God (after all, aren’t we demanding the same sort of courtesy from them?)
3) We need to educate theist about the benefits to them of a secular government.
Some atheist might laugh at this, along with some theists, but I would point out that the earliest arguments for the separation of church and state were made by very devout theists using the Bible as part of their arguments and rationale (Roger Williams is a good example of one such theist).
Further, many of the organizations today that are fighting to maintain a wall of separation between church and state consist of many or even mostly religious people. Americans United for Church and State is headed by an ordained United Church of Christ Minister and consists largely of theists. The Texas Freedom Network, who has done a good job here in Texas combating attempts to mingle religion and state consists largely of clergy and religious people. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is a group consisting mainly of Baptists (surprise!) who strongly support the separation of church and state.
I think a lot of the differences between the United States and many of the European and Canadian governments is due to the historical fact that we created a secular government first and are slowly working our way to a secular culture. In Europe and Canada their culture became secular first and caused their constitutions to be used and interpreted and somewhat modified in a secular manner. Broad generalization here I know, but I think there is a great deal of truth to it.
It is also why I am not overly concerned about the United States becoming a theocracy or being taken over by the fundamentalists. I would be more concerned about this if our Constitution had more sympathy for religion and God as do so many European ones does, but it does not. It is, at its foundation, a thoroughly secular government with some religious flavoring added.