A Special Book Excerpt

First Freedom First

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has coauthored a new book with C. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance. Titled First Freedom First: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the volume examines issues raised by the First Freedom First project. In this excerpt, Lynn explains why religious and philosophical freedom must extend to all Americans, religious and non-religious, and debunks the often-heard Religious Right claim that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

First Freedom First is published by Beacon Press. It is available at book stores nationwide or through online retailers such as Amazon.com.

 “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense! I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.”

Pat Robertson, January 14, 1991, “The 700 Club”

No one can deny that the First Amendment protects religious liberty. That provision’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion, while not absolute, provides a grand measure of religious liberty. Although most Americans identify with Christian denominations, the government is obligated to treat all religions equally. Christian sects do not receive preferential treatment simply because they are larger.

From a legal perspective, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all other two thousand religions in America stand on equal footing. But what about nonbelief – atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and so on? Is it protected by our Constitution?

Religious Right leaders are fond of saying that the Constitution protects freedom of religion but not freedom from religion. This is a simplistic and misguided rendering of a core freedom. The First Amendment would be of little value if it merely granted Americans the right to choose one religion among many. It must, and does, protect the right to reject them all.

The fact that it does so is cause for celebration because at the time of the Constitution’s writing, it marked a major turning point in human rights. For many centuries, nonbelief was seen as a threat to public morals and an orderly society. Religious and governmental leaders believed that only religion – backed by its promise of eternal damnation for the wayward – could ensure proper behavior.

This belief was carried to the New World by the Europeans who settled on American shores. Many colonial charters and state constitutions limited public office to religious believers. Some went even further, insisting that public officials be “Trinitarian Protestants.”

Not everyone agreed, and as the struggle for religious liberty began to play out, some advocates argued that what a person believed or did not believe about God should be irrelevant in his dealings with the state. It was, they argued, irrelevant to one’s ability to lead people.

Colonial-era Baptist minister John Leland once observed, “If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia – let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God – be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”

Leland was not the only one to think this way. During debate over the Constitution, a South Carolina delegate named Charles Pinckney sponsored a measure stating that no religious qualification would ever be required for federal office.

The provision, found now in Article VI of the United States Constitution, states that those elected to public office may be “bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

This language is inconvenient for the Religious Right. Not only does it debunk claims that our country was founded to be a “Christian nation,” it also makes it clear that atheists are duly qualified to hold federal office.

So atheists are free to run for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency. What about state and local governments?

Remarkably, the answer to that question was not sorted out until 1961. Roy Torcaso, a Maryland man who served as a bookkeeper and office manager, was asked by his employer to become a notary public. Maryland had a constitutional provision limiting public office to those willing to make a “declaration of belief in the existence of God.” Torcaso, an atheist, refused to make that statement.

Torcaso sued, and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous ruling in Torcaso’s favor.

Maryland’s provision, along with those in six other state constitutions, was made null and void. (Pennsylvania’s is perhaps the most strangely worded. It holds that public office is open to anyone “who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments….” So to hold office in the Keystone State, you had to believe not only in God but also heaven and hell!)

Torcaso should have settled the matter, but in 1990, Herb Silverman, a professor of mathematics in South Carolina and an atheist, had to go to state court to challenge that state’s bar on nonbelievers holding public office.

South Carolina’s provision was very straightforward in its bigotry. It declared, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.” Silverman applied to become a notary public to test the measure and won a unanimous ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court.

These cases underline an important principle: the government is supposed to be neutral between belief and non-belief. Obviously this is a difficult standard to reach sometimes. Governments often issue religious proclamations, acknowledging National Prayer Days and such. Religious symbols are posted at the seat of government, and the state does not hesitate to use religious phrases in a ceremonial fashion – “In God We Trust” on currency is one example.

Faith-based initiatives proliferate, and political leaders often talk about religion in glowing terms. Congress opens its sessions with prayer, as do state legislatures and many local governing bodies.

In what respect, then, is the state obligated to be neutral between belief and non-belief? First, the government must protect a person’s right not to be compelled to take part in religious worship. The government may not sponsor religious exercises in tax-funded institutions like public schools and require children to take part.

The government may not condition benefits on what a person believes or does not believe about religion. “Faith-based” initiatives are in my view dangerous in part because they threaten this principle. If tax money is turned over to a religious group to run a social service, that group might subtly or not so subtly pressure those in need to participate in religious activities as a condition of getting help.

Even making an inquiry about religion is taboo for the state. Census forms don’t ask about religion for a good reason – it’s none of the government’s business where, if, when, or how you worship.

Atheists are protected in the secular workforce. Just as a person cannot be fired merely for being, say, a Roman Catholic or a Jew, a worker cannot be let go for declining to believe in God. Laws against religious discrimination encompass the religious skeptic.

In the public arena, organizations and individuals espousing non-belief enjoy the same rights as religious groups. In some communities, religious groups have the right to use their own funds and resources to erect religious symbols on public property that is considered an “open forum.” By law, this same right of access must be extended to all other groups.

If a Christian or Jewish group erects the Ten Commandments for a week in a town green in front of city hall, for example, that same right must be extended to a nonreligious group, which could post its secular moral principles or even a statement that “God Is Not Real.”

Although the law on this matter is clear, it’s undeniable that cultural biases against nonbelievers still exist in America. Article VI may ban religious tests for public office, but does that mean an open atheist can be elected? In fact, a near majority, 49 percent, tells pollsters they would not vote for an atheist for president – even if they liked his or her views. No other group has such high negatives.

Even as recently as the 2000 presidential election cycle, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman suggested that religious believers are by default more moral than nonbelievers. After a barrage of criticism, led by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, the senator apologized for the remark.

To date, only one elected member of Congress, Representative Pete Stark (D-CA), has been willing to publicly announce that he does not hold a belief in a supreme being. Stark was joined by a state representative in Wisconsin and a few local officeholders in identifying themselves as non-theistic after the Secular Coalition for America announced it was trying to find an open nonbeliever who held public office.

Other forms of prejudice exist. Atheists are often publicly vilified and criticized in ways that would draw sharp rebukes if similar things were said about Jews or Muslims. Freedom of thought allows individuals to be bigots; it does not allow the government to promote bigotry.

The question of nonbelievers’ rights has been controversial, and I think that is unfortunate. Although I am a Christian minister, I have no problem granting equal rights to those who reject all forms of religion. In fact, I insist that their rights be protected.

This should not be considered an unusual stand for a member of the clergy to adopt. In a sense, I am only following the best traditions of Leland, the Baptist minister I mentioned earlier. Leland knew that his rights as a Baptist were not secure unless the rights of everyone else were secure. He also knew that what a person believes about faith is not relevant to his or her ability to govern.

We all seek to be free from certain types of religion. In the 19th century, Roman Catholics objected to Protestant prayers and religious worship in public schools. The Catholic parents did not seek to infringe on the rights of their Protestant neighbors; they simply wanted their children to be free from an undue form of religious coercion. If a public school implemented daily prayers to an impersonal or “New Age”-type god, I expect many fundamentalist Christian parents would cry foul. These god concepts are not their own, so they do not want their children indoctrinated in them. They are seeking the same freedom from a specific religion that nonbelievers seek from all.

There is also a simple matter of justice and fairness involved. An honest advocate for religious freedom must contend for all faiths, even of those he or she may not personally approve. Roger Williams, the 17th-century religious liberty pioneer who founded Rhode Island, welcomed everyone into his colony. Williams sharply disagreed with the ruling Puritan establishment of Massachusetts, and he fled their reckless mixture of church and state. Williams welcomed other dissenters. For example, he was no fan of the doctrines of the Quakers, but allowed them to worship unmolested in Rhode Island during his watch.

We need to understand that in matters of conscience, we as a people are not truly free if some among us are oppressed. It is not enough to sit back and feel good about our own situation. Freedom of conscience is too valuable a gift not to be extended to all.

There are other reasons why “Worship…or Not” makes for good public policy. Among them is a simple question: what is the alternative? We have learned through bitter experience that coercion in matters of faith is counterproductive, cruel and downright un-American.

People cannot be compelled to believe certain things about religion. True, they can be terrorized into claiming that they believe certain things. They can be harassed and even imprisoned by repressive governments determined to stamp out “heresy.” Their children can be indoctrinated in public institutions and turned against their own parents.

To what end? A belief or a non-belief can be driven underground but never truly extinguished, except perhaps in a totalitarian state.

A free society will not and cannot tolerate such things. Nor is it acceptable to imply that there is a certain set of shared values that make one truly “American,” and that belief in God is one of these. Historically, Americans have been a churchgoing people, but our Constitution is secular and establishes no religious baselines for behavior.

I accept that there are certain shared civic values that tend to define the nation. Most Americans support democracy, free speech, the right to vote, and our system of government, for example. One can adopt these values without appending a religious creed to them.

Many people have, over the years, attempted to tie features of the American system of government to a religious perspective. I have heard Religious Right activists claim, for example, that a model for the U.S. government is found in the Bible.

I’ve read the Bible and have not been able to find it there. In fact, I find no examples of democracy in that book. It’s not surprising, because the Bible was never intended to be a blueprint for government. This does not stop people from engaging in wishful thinking. The Bible, in my view, is a blueprint for faith and a guide for living a spiritual life. But not everyone chooses to live that life or to view the Bible in that manner. Some reject the fundamentalist gloss put on the Bible by certain believers, while others reject the book entirely.

Rather than bring the government into this spat, I’d just as soon leave it for the free marketplace of ideas. Debates and discussions about the nature of God, the existence of God, and the value of religion have been going on there in a robust fashion for a long time. Many voices seek to be heard, and the debate is often thought provoking. The government should allow all of these perspectives without endorsing any one.

Freedom of religion versus freedom from religion is a false dichotomy set up by the Religious Right to divide and confuse Americans. These two concepts do not fight one another. Indeed, they are closely related members of the same family of freedom. We best defend both at the same source: a high wall of separation between church and state.     

Reprinted from First Freedom First: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State by the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy and the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. Copyright 2008. By permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org.